They call football The Beautiful Game. Beautiful it may still be, but that beauty had a tired face on it yesterday evening after an acrimonious match of two statistics. The Spanish won 1-0
with a goal at the end of extra time, and an astonishing (and record-breaking) 14 yellow cards were given, two of them resulting in the sending off of Dutch defender John Heitinga.
Football fans the world over, and particularly in Europe, were expecting an epic final. After all, the Dutch had amply demonstrated their appetite for clean, flowing football and scoring goals, and Spain had rediscovered the technical class which led to them becoming the current European champions.
What we got instead was a cynical and unending litany of anti-football, niggling fouls, outright violence and some of the worst refereeing I have ever seen in a world cup match. Nelson Mandela was there to watch it, and I’ll bet a pound to a penny that he now wishes he’d stayed at home.
The first 30 minutes produced a deluge of fouls by both sides, intent as they were on denying possession and space to their opponents. The worst of them was Nigel de Jong’s flying karate kick after 28 minutes which nearly caved Xabi Alonso’s chest in. Amazingly, he only got a yellow. Van Persie, not content with merely felling Sergio Bousquets like a tree, continued his rampage with a petulant and potentially dangerous foul on Capdevila.
Van Bommel did a good imitation of a grass scythe when he cut down Iniesta, and Puyol did an excellent demolition job on Dutch star Robben’s ankle. Five players, Van Persie, Puyol, Van Bommel, Ramos and De Jong, were booked by the hapless and ineffective English referee Howard Webb before half an hour of play. That meant he was already just one card short of the record for yellow cards in a final. He would soon blow that record to smithereens with effortless ineptitude.
The spate of bookings continued after half-time, and although the Dutch were clearly the main offenders, the Spanish were not innocent choirboy victims either, with shirt-pulling, obstruction and other dismal tactics making sure that anything that looked like turning into a Dutch scoring occasion was stopped dead in its tracks.
Despite the best efforts of Robben and Sneijder, Xavi and Iniesta, shamelessly negative defending meant that the goals we were waiting for failed to materialize. As the end of normal time approached, both sides began to employ time-wasting tactics and the players looked as if they were on the edge of nervous exhaustion.
Howard Webb has had an exceptional career as an international referee, but last night he may have officiated the match too far. He will surely regret going down in history with the dubious honor of being the first referee to be surrounded and berated by the players of both sides in a World Cup final. The Spanish made their displeasure with him painfully felt as the players left the pitch at the end of the first half (they felt they had been denied two penalties) and the Dutch –how cynical can you get – assailed him after both the Spanish goal and the final whistle.
As it was, and with the match looking like it was heading for a penalty shoot-out with just four minutes to go, Iniesta had the good sense to put the game out of its misery and thus end hostilities with a goal. That goal looked to be offside at first, although replays showed that it wasn’t. “Thank god that wasn’t yet another error by Webb” said the French commentator on whose channel I watched the match. “If Spain had won with an offside goal we’d never have heard the last of it.”
Amen to that, congratulations to Spain, and I shall now turn my attention to the next Olympics in the hope of seeing something more inspiring.