July 11th 2010
That's all folks!
Later tonight, the final of the World Cup will be played between Spain and Holland and that will then be that.
Regardless of the result tonight - and in a sense, regardless of the performance too - the 2010 tournament was a disappointment that the South African continent didn't deserve. Despite the passion and the enthusiasm of the people of the continent, most of the football has been tedious and mundane with few highlights.
England, of course, were hopeless and hapless but it wasn't just the poor performances of the men with three lions on their white shirts that disappointed. Most of the games lacked real surprise and excitement and there were few moments that got me out of my chair. Pointless controversy reigned in some matches - issues that could be solved in an instant if FIFA would allow a fifth referee with a TV monitor - but by and large the refereeing was of a better standard than most years so the lack of substance shouldn't be laid at the feet of the men in black.
At the end of the last World Cup I wrote a long and impassioned piece about England and the future of football itself, but I'm not going to waste my time in 2010. That World football and England need a strong kick in the pants is all that needs to be said; whether either will occur is something I am - to be honest - starting to lose a bit of hope for. There are many fans watching now who know nothing more than what they currently see and seem quite happy about it judging by the number of emails I've received. I note though that most of those emails speak of 'defense' and 'offense' so I am thinking that most of these people are likely to be relative newcomers to the game and not able to recall tournaments that were a joy to witness. Worse though, if you think this is how football is and should be then there is no desire to see it change. It wasn't that I approved of Luis Suarez's blatant handball that paid off - it was just in this tournament it was good to get a bit of controversy going and to see a few people worked up about something barring the exit of their own side. I was so indebted to the Uruguyan, I found myself actually defending the indefensible! (And - yes! - before our North American cousins write in I'm fully aware that 'defense' is more consistent with 'indefensible').
I've enjoyed watching Uruguay and - yes, I'll admit Germany. I thought Spain would be the team to beat before the tournament and they deserve to be in the final if only for what they have achieved these past few years but they - like Holland, who also deserved their success - haven't been at their entertaining best and there have been few ebb and flow matches like the 3rd / 4th place play-off game. Now I know, of course, that the pointless eve-of-final game is a pressure off scenario but that only highlights the issues: too many teams intent only on spoiling and stopping hoping for crumbs and too many top teams frozen with fear. If only everyone could look at Germany and see what is capable if your expectations are low but you are happy to go for it. Quite how that can be instilled to make future tournaments more entertaing though, it's difficult to say. The fear genie has long been out of that particular bottle.
At the end of the 2006 competition in Germany I found myself wishing everyone well and hoping to see them in the 2008 European finals - something, of course, I never got to do. So you'll excuse me if I don't get too emotional this time it's just I feel another spell in the football wilderness beckons...!
It just remains to thank everyone who wrote in during the tournament, I genuinely read them all - even the barmy and abusive ones! - and I hope that at least some of the stuff I've written has entertained or driven you mad. If so, my work here has been a success. I'm off now to my final 'nationality' meal and drink and hope we all meet again sometime in the future.
Now PLEASE smash up them bloody vuvezelas and take that beach ball away with you!
Spain 1 Netherlands 0 (aet)
Venue: La Tasca - Colchester
Sustenance: Tapas, Sangria and Rioja
Andres Iniesta's strike four minutes from the end of extra time at least brought some semblance of justice to a tournament that probably got the final it deserved. The Spaniard was the best player on the pitch and possibly in the competition and his joyous celebration was thoroughly merited.
Sadly, the other spotlight though probably fell on English referee Howard Webb who had to endure a night of cynical fouls and niggly tactics - mostly from the Dutch quarter - designed to spoil the more expansive football intentions of the Spanish. Some of the fouls - of which a high boot into the chest of Alonso by de Jong was a lowpoint pick - were more at home in a Martial Arts class. Webb was probably more lenient than he might have been on another night but his patience wasn't appreciated by the Dutch who simple decided to see how many bad challenges they could get away with without them falling to the same man.
It could have been different, Ramos having a superb header palmed wide by Stekelenburg after four minutes and this closely followed by a cross shot that had to be booted away by Heitinger and a Villa volley that flew into the side-netting. Then the fouls started with a 14th minute Van Persie hack on Capdevila that rightly ensured the Arsenal man saw yellow quickly followed by a studs up challenge by Puyol. Van Bommel's terrible tackle on Iniesta and de Jong's demolition of Alonso's chest followed as the game started to unravel although Spain always seemed to be the ones trying to play football and create chances while the Dutch relied on fast counter-attacking that seemed to cause the Spanish problems, particularly at the end of the first half when Robben brought a smart save from Casillas who had to dive low to send a shot round the post.
The second half continued as the first with Spain trying to create, the Dutch looking dangerous on the break - particularly with Robben cutting in - and Webb busy taking names and flashing cards. Then the Dutch had a glorious chance to take the lead, Sneijder found Robben with a brilliant through ball and the Bayern Munich winger must have thought he had done enough but his shot was diverted wide by the trailing foot of Casillas that sent the ball wide. Robben fell to his knees, hands on head; he will play that over in his head many times over the coming years.
Villa then had a chance to ensure the Golden Boot was solely his when he had a great chance from close in from a good Navas cross but a defender's boot diverted the chance over the bar and shortly after another shot took a deflection away for a corner. To add insult to injury, Ramos then headed over from the resulting corner when completely unmarked.
But Spain were undone by Robben again when a van Persie back-header fell for the flying Dutchman - you gotta allow me one of those! - to run onto where he beat Puyol for speed, was fouled but given the advantage only to see Casillas smother his chance at the last. Robben was furious and I sometimes wonder if a rule change wouldn't benefit here where, if the advantage doesn't pay then the foul should be called back and given.
The whistle for 90 minutes only signalled a return to the action of the first half with the Spanish looking the more likely and the Dutch trying to contain. Substitute Cesc Fabregas had an excellent chance when through, but Stekelenburg kept up the habits of the game by denying the Spanish player with his feet. Then Mathijsen had a chance almost identical to Ramos' second half opportunity, heading over from a Robben corner when unmarked after Casillas came and got nowhere near. Van Bronckhorst did superbly well to block an Iniesta run and shot before Navas watched yet another shot take a deflection off a defender.
Fabregas was now causing the Netherlands a lot of problems and it was his smart play with Iniesta that saw the latter brought down by Heitinga when clean through. Howard Webb had had enough by now and showed the Dutchman his second yellow and a red to reduce Holland to ten men - in truth they should have been down a man much, much earlier.
Then came the moment the Spanish have been waiting years for, Elia was squeezed out on the edge of the area in a Dutch attack - fairly I thought - and with Holland protesting Navas broke, the ball playing around midfield before a Fabregas through ball on the edge of the area found Iniesta who finished coolly, whipping off his shirt and running to the touchline to unreserved celebrations.
The Dutch protested although I'm unsure if the protests were about the claims for a foul or Elia or, as the TV pundits suggested, the fact a corner hadn't been awarded a minute or so earlier when a Holland free kick was diverted by the Spanish defensive wall but Howard Webb awarded a goal-kick. The protests were rightly waved away - a lot of play had occured between the incidents and the Dutch had plenty of time to clear their lines - and Spain simply had to hold out for another few minutes; something they did comfortably enough. I thought the coverage of ITV which I watched on highlights made too much of Howard Webb's poor call on the corner but these issues can easily be solved by another referee with a video and until they are these things will occur.
The Spanish shirts with the one star over the badge were handed out - I assume these were made beforehand in which case did the Dutch have a set and what happens to them now? - and the team made the glorious journey to pick up the trophy among scenes of tearful players and raptuous fan celebrations.
Arjen Robben's comments about referee Webb after the match summed up much of what is wrong with World football; if the Dutch winger is right with his comment that 'the referee had a poor game' then it's only because the Dutch could have been down to seven men or less before Iniesta's winning goal. Failure to stop a goal 90 seconds after a corner hasn't been given is hardly the fault of the officials.
The best team won the competition is about all we can say and that doesn't always happen in football so congratulations to Spain and particularly the staff and management of La Tasca - with my month food journey ending up with a free meal it all seemed to finish in an appropriate way.