Jesús Navas vainly tear-assing down the right side, only to lose possession. A jumble of clumsily fortunate passes. Fernando Torres’ punchless cross. Cesc Fàbregas playing a pass any academy youth could see, the only real choice he had in the moment. Andrés Iniesta funneling his encyclopedic technique into the kind of finish he was rarely called upon to execute.
Iniesta was only allowed in that position thanks to Rafael van der Vaart’s last-ditch defending, which dragged him well into his own penalty area and kept Iniesta onside. Spain, the national team that patented order and diligence, was only allowed to win its first World Cup thanks to chaos.
But win it did, 1-0 over the Netherlands in the 116th minute of the 2010 FIFA World Cup final on a chilly night in Johannesburg. This 1-nil being different from the 1-nils Spain collected in every other knockout stage game, and most other games they’d won in recent memory, a pandemonian interruption that turned much more joyous once Iniesta scored his goal.
Quite the contrast. That’s what struck me about the final between Spain and the Netherlands. That’s what sticks with me to this day.
Tiki-taka — introduced to Spain by Dutch icon Johan Cruyff, no less — was at once a thing of the past, present and future at the 2010 World Cup, an epicenter spread across 30 days in South Africa. The Spaniards had arrived on the world stage because of it, four years after France shoved them out of the round of 16 and left former manager Luis Aragonés little choice but to explore new methods of winning games with physically overmatched players, and two years after his changes yielded the first major trophy in nearly half a century at Euro 2008.
This achievement was even bigger. One of the sport’s signature nations finally had a World Cup title to call its own. A soccer-mad nation rejoiced.
Everyone else recoiled.
Few games have been condemned as widely and loudly as the 2010 final. Chances were sparse, and the ones that came about were wasted (almost exclusively by Arjen Robben). Fourteen total cards were issued, including nine to the Netherlands. The Dutch had one player, John Heitinga, sent off in the 109th minute, and another, Nigel de Jong, was inexplicably allowed to keep playing 80 minutes earlier after stabbing his cleat into Xabi Alonso’s chest. “Ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football,” Cruyff himself termed the Dutch performance. He’s right. There’s no defending it.
There is, however, defending the context. Eleven weeks prior, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side uglied up and walled off Barcelona — which featured six Spaniards who would start the World Cup final, and signed a seventh, David Villa, right before the tournament — to reach and ultimately win the Champions League final. Connecting the dots is pretty straightforward. This was how you beat Spain.
The question then becomes, are you OK with it? Are you willing to mortgage your tactics and attempt it? Are you pragmatic enough to realize that chasing multiple goals, which the Netherlands had scored in all but one of its World Cup games, would effectively hand the trophy to Spain?
“I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style,” Cruyff said. “... I was wrong.”
Maybe, but I don’t think the Dutch were wrong to try it. A win absolutely renders it worthwhile. Obligation is a nebulous thing. Even tiki-taka can be boring to watch.
Spain wielded it to unprecedented success, peaking that night in Johannesburg. What a backdrop it was. The first World Cup final on African soil, between two star-crossed soccer nations, kicking off after night had already fallen. I’ll vouch for the much-maligned vuvuzelas, too, piercing the air with tension, a cello-based, air-raid siren of a soundtrack not dissimilar to the Joker’s theme from The Dark Knight.
I watched the game with friends at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Burbank, California, and we were plenty compelled. I won’t indulge my personal life too much here, but that summer was around the time I realized covering soccer professionally could be a path forward in my media career.
So as I sat there that day, watching two teams with the second-highest combined ELO rating in international soccer history at the time, one mucky as a byproduct of its dominance while the other deliberately so, it was an epicenter of sorts for me.
I can’t lie, I still thought the Netherlands would win. I didn’t think Spain had it in them. The Euros are one thing, the World Cup is another. They wouldn’t make history.
That wasn’t how Spain did things.
Boy was I wrong.
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