JOHANNESBURG: Andres Iniesta secured the World Cup for Spain for the first time in their history by scoring the only goal of an enthralling final against the Netherlands four minutes from the end of extra-time on Sunday.
Just as it seemed a third World Cup final was destined to be settled by a penalty shoot-out, the Barcelona midfielder found himself in space in the Dutch box and hammered an unstoppable shot past goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
It was a cruel blow for a Dutch side that had hoped to eradicate memories of the country’s defeats in the 1974 and 1978 finals.
But the ultimate outcome of a contest both sides might easily have won inside 90 minutes will trigger few complaints from neutrals.
Over the two hours, the European champions enjoyed the better of the chances while the Dutch had defender John Heitinga sent off and seven other players booked, most of them for challenges that appeared cynically designed to disturb the rhythm of Spain’s passing game.
“It’s incredible,” said Iniesta. “What a joy especially when you see how we won it.
“There aren’t the words to describe what I am feeling. After my goal, I thought about my family and all the people who I love. But the victory is the fruit of a lot of work.”
Nelson Mandela’s beaming pre-match appearance ensured the only glum face at Soccer City before kick-off belonged to Fernando Torres, consigned to the bench until the second period of extra-time as Spain opted to keep David Villa in the central striking role.
Torres’ evening was to finish on a much happier note however with his cross causing the disruption in the Dutch defence that granted Iniesta his chance.
Villa had contributed five of the seven goals his side had scored en route to the final, but it was Sergio Ramos who looked most likely to give Spain an early lead.
The defender’s header from Xavi’s fifth-minute free-kick drew a fine save from Stekelenburg and his menacing drive across the goalmouth was deflected over the bar by Heitinga without the Dutch centreback knowing too much abut it.
In between those two efforts, Dirk Kuyt had a 25-yard drive saved by Iker Casillas. But, with Villa soon finding the side netting with a back-post volley, Spain appeared well set for a rewarding evening.
Their rhythm, though, was disrupted as the match took a niggly turn after quarter of an hour, shattering any hopes Webb may have had of a quiet evening.
The English official was obliged to book Robin van Persie, Carles Puyol, Mark van Bommel and Ramos in quick succession and the fifth yellow card might easily have been a straight red after Nigel de Jong’s reckless high challenge resulted in him planting his studs into Xabi Alonso’s chest.
Arjen Robben forced Casillas into his first significant save when he forced the Real Madrid goalkeeper to get down smartly at his near post as the Dutch finished the opening period strongly.
The Spanish reasserted themselves after the interval and left-back Joan Capdevila squandered a good chance to put them ahead when, from an unmarked position at the back post, he failed to connect with Puyol’s flick-on of a Xavi corner.
Xavi shaved the post with a free-kick but it was Holland who enjoyed the clearest chance of the second half when Wesley Sneijder’s pass split the Spanish centrebacks and sent Robben into a one-one-one with Casillas.
The Spanish goalkeeper opted to dive the wrong way but Robben’s shot caught his trailing boot just firmly enough to be diverted beyond the post.
Substitute Jesus Navas delivered Spain’s response to that let-off, drilling in a low cross that, after Heitinga had slipped, reached Villa at the back post. The Barcelona-bound striker got his shot away but Heitinga somehow managed to pick himself up and, with a full-stretch lunge, deflect the ball over.
Ramos, too, was profligate, heading another Xavi corner over after timing his run to the edge of the six-yard box to perfection.
Spain were on top once more but the Dutch might have settled the contest ten minutes from the end of regulation time, when Robben got goal-side of Puyol and appeared to be illegally knocked off balance by the defender.
Cesc Fabregas, introduced for extra-time, was sent clear by Iniesta but struck his shot against Stekelenburg’s legs. Navas also went close with a drive that slipped inches wide after a deflection off van Bronckhorst.
The red card that had looked inevitable all evening was finally issued at the start of the second period of extra-time, when Heitinga left Webb with no choice but to give him a second booking for pulling back Iniesta as he chased a pass from Xavi that would have sent him clear in the box.
The Spanish were unable to exploit the resulting free-kick but Iniesta, finally, ensured they got what they deserved.