July 11, 2010
Iniesta is Spain's White Knight
By JAMES LAWTON, QMI Agency
JOHANNESBURG -- Amid the rubble of what was supposed to be one of the great World Cup finals, it was entirely, beautifully appropriate that it was Andres Iniesta of Spain who in the end came shining through.
He scored the winning goal late in extra time but much more than that he showed the world what it is to be a player who goes out to win with the best of his craft and his heart.
Some of us gave the Dutch a chance of winning on their own touches of native, classic talent, which resided in men such as Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, but it was more than they gave themselves.
Their battle plan was, unlike that of Spain, to spoil and harass and then, strike out for any the possibilities that might come their way. It might just have come off. Robben was twice foiled by the last line of Spanish resistance, Iker Casillas, and near the end the Dutch claimed that their quick, young substitute Eljero Elia might have been awarded a penalty.
But had the Dutch edged their way into history, it would have been no way to compensate for the failures of the teams of Cruyff and Krol. That generation failed, maybe, because they believed in themselves too much. The one we saw here Sunday didn't believe enough.
Throughout the tournament, Iniesta, the little man from La Mancha, had supplied the creative force of the Spanish team which promised not only to win the tournament for the first time but lift the final alongside classic encounters involving men such as Pele and Diego Maradona.
There was never any chance of that last undertaking being delivered, not once it was clear the Netherlands understood that it couldn't truly compete with the range and the touch of the Spanish game and settled instead for a spoiling operation which brought them nine yellow cards, one red and an indictment saying that not only had they failed to go one better than their great predecessors, led by Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol in 1974 and 1978, they had found an entirely different and infinitely more forgettable level.
English referee Howard Webb's nightmare unfolded from almost the first exchanges and if he is likely to be criticized most severely for his failure to dismiss Manchester City's Nigel de Jong for felling Xabi Alonso with a wild kick there is no question that his assignment was less an honour than a systematically applied ordeal.
For Spain, though, there was always something to reach out for and no-one did it more relentlessly than Iniesta. The challenge was to confirm the rightness of their belief in football of beauty and pressure and endless work and if there were times when the counter-attacking of Holland threatened to unravel the project there was always the intelligent probing of Iniesta to re-direct the effort, pick up again the momentum that was inevitably broken by the yellow cards and the Dutch knowledge that if the game was allowed to flow to its limits it would not be to their benefit.
Cruyff, all along, had said that being Dutch did not distract him from the central point that Spanish football was not so much a matter for narrow national pride but a wider acknowledgement that they had come to represent the game at its best. He added that those who tried to sneak a result against Spain, live off counter-attack, were always certainly inviting much suffering.
That's what The Netherlands ultimately brought on themselves and it could scarcely have been more fitting that it should be Iniesta to perform the vital sword stroke. He had created so much of the momentum of this Spanish team, most memorably guiding them past an obdurate Paraguay team with one moment of unforgettable intuitive brilliance, and always fighting to re-impose the revolving pressure which finally carried them home Sunday.
There might have been other heroes. Cesc Fabregas had one moment of near breakthrough when he came on as a substitute but the chance slipped by.
David Villa had a chance when the ball came to him under the Dutch bar, but his glory, and an exclusive golden boot also flew away.
It meant that as the minutes fell away, as Sneijder who was so close to winning an extraordinary four major trophies in a few months found that his ability to influence any result was, maybe finite there was one man above all who seemed most destined to settle the affair.
Those who gave the Dutch a chance, before they unveiled their exercise in taking what might just be made available to them rather than claiming it for themselves, pointed out the persistent Spanish failure to win by more than the barest margins. All the beauty in the football world, and much of it was put on display by the Spanish in the semi-final against Germany last week, is no good if someone comes along and steals the prize.
That was again the possibility as such as Robben and Robin van Persie made breaks on the Spanish goal in the last few minutes. It was, one thought that Andres Iniesta had a duty to banish. He did it in the way that he has made his trademark. He broke, he checked and then he struck.
In that moment, he carried off the trophy that had become his and his nation's due. It was the best part of a night, and a World Cup, that could have gone horribly wrong.
- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.