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Spain captures title at last, beating Netherlands 1-0

JOHANNESBURG — Exhaustion etched on their faces, fatigued bodies ready to betray them, the players knew just one goal would be enough to win the elusive World Cup for their nation.

Spain or the Netherlands would win its first championship if only someone could find the net.

Andres Iniesta did, and Spain rules the soccer world at long last.

"We have all done an incredible job," he said Sunday night, shortly after the 1-0 extra-time victory at Soccer City Stadium. "I don't think we even realize what we have done."

They beat the Netherlands on Sunday to go one better than the European title España won in 2008.

Unlike the team that looked unstoppable on offense the past couple of years, Spain won all four single-elimination games in this tournament 1-0. That tight margin characterized the World Cup, which featured a record 31 one-goal decisions out of 64 matches — four more than the record set 2002, according to STATS LLC. The Spaniards won the championship with the fewest goals, eight.

This final was a physical test, sometimes dirty — 14 yellow cards, more than double the record of six, were handed out. The Dutch drew nine, and defender John Heitinga was gone after his second yellow, forcing the Dutch to finish with 10 men.

On the goal, Iniesta broke free in the penalty area, taking a pass from Cesc Fabregas and hitting a right-footed shot from 8 yards in the 116th minute, deep into the 30 minutes of extra time. Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg got a piece of the shot but could not stop it.

"When I struck it, it just had to go in," Iniesta said.

Yet for the Dutch and their legions of orange-clad fans wearing everything from jerseys to jumpsuits to clown gear to pajamas, it was yet another disappointment at the final hurdle.

Soccer City was soaked in Oranje, from the seats painted in that hue throughout the stadium to pretty much everyone using them, including crown prince Willem-Alexander. It was different when they lost to hosts West Germany (1974) and Argentina ('78) in previous finals. This time, the Dutch — whose ties to South Africa stretch back centuries as colonizers — were something of a home team.

Spain had pockets of supporters, too, with fans dressed in red and scattered throughout including Queen Sofia, Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal and Lakers star Pau Gasol.

Stekelenburg, relatively inexperienced on this level, made a spectacular left leg save when Fabregas broke free early in overtime. And for all of Spain's possession and attacking flair, the most dangerous player was Netherlands forward Arjen Robben. He had a rare breakaway in the 62nd minute after a brilliant through pass from Wesley Sneijder. He had the ball on his preferred left foot, but Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas charged out and barely got his right leg on the shot to deflect it wide of the gaping net.

Yet at the end, there the Dutch were, more than ever carrying the reputation of the best nation never to win it all, wiping away tears as they received their runnerup medals. Coach Bert van Marwijk took off his silver medal as soon as he left the podium, wearing a look of disgust instead.

The winners struggled but managed to lift coach Vicente del Bosque in the air in celebration.

"This is immeasurable for Spain," he said.

Casillas, the captain, accepted the trophy from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, kissed the distinctive gold award and raised it for all to see while cameras flashed and confetti flew throughout the still-full stadium.

"It's the most beautiful that there is," Iniesta said. "It's spectacular."

Spain captures title at last, beating Netherlands 1-0 07/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010 12:32am]
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