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The unscheduled visitors barged into the belly of Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium on Sunday night brandishing cold beers and a warm serenade. Cesc Fàbregas, Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol aren't exactly the Three Tenors, but that didn't keep the trio of Spanish soccer players from invading the postgame press conference with a song (of sorts) to hail midfielder Andrés Iniesta after his extra-time goal gave Spain a 1--0 victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. "We love you, Andrés!" they chanted in Spanish, raising their bottles, dancing a jig and drawing a dimpled smile from Iniesta at the podium. "We're the world champions!"
It figures. In a World Cup that saw the sport's top individual stars all exit by the quarterfinals—adiós, Lionel Messi; cheerio, Wayne Rooney; adeus, Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo—Spain had to turn everything into a team affair. That included the decisive goal.
The fate of the 19th World Cup came down to one lovely play in an unlovely final. The defining sequence started when Puyol, a defender, won the ball just seven yards from his own byline, then triggered a breathtaking 25-second, 100-yard buildup that featured five Spanish players, 10 dribbles and six passes (including one gorgeous backheel) before Iniesta fired Fàbregas's elegant diagonal feed into the Dutch goal.
Not even Rolex produces movement so coordinated and true. "I can't quite believe it yet," said Iniesta, who has a penchant for big-game strikes, having scored an extra-time goal against Chelsea that secured Barcelona's spot in the 2009 Champions League final. "I simply made a small contribution in a game that was very tough, very rough."
Iniesta's 116th-minute goal saved everyone from enduring the third penalty-kick shootout in the last five editions of the World Cup final, and if he wasn't right about his small contribution—that was his backheel pass too—he was dead-on when he described the encounter as overly physical. English referee Howard Webb handled the final like a substitute high school teacher, losing control of the game despite issuing 14 yellow cards, eight more than the previous record for soccer's crown jewel. Webb's main failure? Not handing deserved red cards to Dutch midfielders Mark van Bommel (who viciously cleaned out Iniesta with a tackle) and Nigel de Jong (who fly-kicked Xabi Alonso in the chest) in the first half. By swallowing his whistle early on, Webb allowed the nastiness to dominate the final.
You could joke that the tone was set when security forces punched and subdued a man who ran onto the field before the game and tried to put a stocking cap over the World Cup trophy, but that would be letting Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk and his thuggish players off the hook. Realizing they couldn't match Spain's skill and possession—a revealing concession considering that the Dutch roster was stocked with elite attackers—the Netherlands tried to rely on quick strikes through midfielders Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder while using hardmen De Jong and Van Bommel (the Eddie Haskell of soccer) to throw the smaller Spanish players off their games. It nearly worked. Robben had two second-half breakaways saved by Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas, while Iniesta could have drawn his own card for a frustrated retaliation takedown of Van Bommel.
In the end we were left to ponder a system in which Iniesta received the same yellow-card punishment for his goal celebration (removing his jersey to reveal a T-shirt honoring the late Spanish league player Dani Jarque) as De Jong and Van Bommel got for their game-shaping acts of cynical aggression. When a Spanish journalist asked Van Marwijk about "the tough, ugly image that Holland has left on the field in this final," the Dutch coach argued that it was the only way his team could prevail. "It's still our intention to play beautiful soccer, but we were also facing a very good opponent," he explained. "Spain is the best soccer country of the past few years, and we really need to have a top day to be able to beat them. Both sides committed fouls. That may be regrettable for a final. It's not our style. But then again, you do play a game to win."
Playing to win was the rationale used by more than one traditional powerhouse in this World Cup to justify a retreat from creative, attack-minded soccer—or a full abandonment when facing Spain. Under its taskmaster coach, Dunga, Brazil ditched the Beautiful Game for a counterattacking strategy that relied on power and athleticism more than flair and technique. (The Dutch took down the Brazilians 2--1 in the quarterfinals, setting the stage, one hopes, for a return to the style that made Brazil special when it hosts the next World Cup in 2014.) And for all the excitement that surrounded third-place Germany, which scored 11 goals against Argentina, England and Uruguay, the youthful Germans were exposed by Spain in a 1--0 semifinal loss as a team that had precious few ideas other than to mass in their own half and play bunker ball if they couldn't strike on the counter.
Spain is special. It has a plan, a constructive style and, after six decades of chronic underachievement, a mystique. If 1998 to 2006 was the era of France's Zinédine Zidane in world soccer, we have now entered the era of La Furia Roja (the Red Fury). By beating the Netherlands, Spain became only the third nation ever to hold the World Cup and European Championship trophies at the same time, joining Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany (Euro 1972 and '74 World Cup) and Zidane's France ('98 World Cup and Euro 2000). But there's more to Spain's accomplishment than winning titles. In fact soccer is only the latest popular global endeavor in which Spain has not only triumphed but has done so by pushing itself to the cutting edge of creativity. Whether the field is haute cuisine (Ferran Adrià), cinema (Pedro Almodóvar), architecture (Santiago Calatrava) or fútbol, Spain has advanced to the forefront by refusing to imitate others and instead following the inspiration of a few talented individuals to perfect distinctive aesthetic styles.
Tiki-taka—tippy-tap—Spaniards call their possession-oriented soccer attack, a system of short passes, precise triangles and cat-and-mouse keepaway that requires patience, enormous technical skill and the kind of teamwork that comes only from years of playing together. It was no accident that seven of Spain's 11 starters in the final, including midfield maestros Xavi and Iniesta, were teammates at Barcelona, Europe's most successful (and entertaining) club of recent years. By controlling the ball for such long stretches at a time, the Spanish are able to pin back opponents, drain their energy by forcing them to play defense and limit their attacking forays.