- - Sunday, July 11, 2010

Spain rules the soccer world, winning the World Cup at long, long last.

The triumph came in an exhausting 1-0 extra-time victory over the Netherlands on Sunday before a live crowd of 84,490 in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium and a worldwide TV audience expected to top 700 million viewers.

Two years after winning the European title, the stylish Spaniards did even better, winning a physical test of attrition that sometimes turned dirty — a finals-record 14 yellow cards were handed out and the Dutch finished with 10 men when John Heitinga was sent off.

In the end, it was Andres Iniesta breaking free in the penalty area, taking a pass from Cesc Fabregas and putting a right-footed shot from 8 yards just past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg with about seven minutes still to play, including injury time.

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

As the referee blew the final whistle, fireworks lit up the sky and the biggest celebration in Spain’s living memory began in earnest. Television images even showed crowds waving Spanish flags in Barcelona, where more than 1.1 million protested Saturday to demand autonomy for Catalonia.

Madrid crowds began dancing and singing one of the team’s battle cries, “Let’s Get Them.” Marta Seco, 22, was overcome with emotion. “This is the greatest sporting event in the history of the country,” she shouted with tears in her eyes.

Fans watching from a patio bar in a working-class neighborhood whooped in joy, yelling “Espana! Espana!”

The goal in the 116th minute came off a turnover by the Dutch defense that Fabregas controlled just outside the penalty area. Iniesta stayed on the right and sneaked in to grab the pass and put his shot to the far post. Stekelenburg barely brushed it with his fingertips as it soared into the net.

Iniesta tore off his jersey after the goal and raced to the corner where he was mobbed by his teammates.

“We have all done an incredible job,” he said after the game. “I don’t think we even realize what we have done.”

The Spaniards saluted their vastly outnumbered fans in the stadium with arms raised high, then lifted their coach, Vicente del Bosque, in the air in celebration. “This is immeasurable for Spain,” del Bosque said.

Several Dutch players wiped away tears as they received their medals as runners-up. The Netherlands now has more victories in World Cup games without a title than any nation: 19. Spain held that dubious record with 24.

Coach Bert van Marwijk took off his silver medal as soon as left the podium, with a look of disgust on his face. He later acknowledged the game’s aesthetic ugliness — a far cry from the attacking “total football” style that has made the Dutch a favorite of neutral fans since the 1970s

“Our fouls may be a sad thing for a final, but it is not our style,” he said.

In the Netherlands, the mood was funereal, as the nation lost its third World Cup final — the others coming in back-to-back defeats to host nations West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978.

Fans wept and hugged in The Hague at the final whistle and tossed handfuls of orange confetti into the air that had been intended for a victory party.

“It’s such a deception. We were so close. I feel empty,” said Sander Lubbers, a 33-year-old shopworker.

Before the game, the Rev. Paul Vlaar decorated his Catholic parish orange for the day, including the chapel, the candles and the piano. Father Vlaar kicked off his sermon to about 300 orange-clad worshippers by praying for Dutch teamwork to lead to victory in the World Cup final.

The fiesta wasn’t even contained to Spain. In Toronto, for instance, Spanish fans also took to the streets, dancing on a U-Haul truck, a streetcar, and even a transit shelter. In Mexico City, about 2,500 revelers converged at the Plaza de Cibeles in the trendy Roma Norte district. They banged drums, blew vuvuzelas and marched around the fountain there — an exact copy of the monument with the same name in Madrid — chanting and singing.

Back in Madrid, one banner amid the masses read “Octopus Paul, Forever!” and featured a crudely drawn picture of the octopus from Germany who became a pop culture sensation by correctly picking World Cup matches.

He picked Spain to win the final.

From combined dispatches

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