Viva España! Spain are the new undisputed unofficial and official world champions, winning both the Unofficial Football World Championships title and the World Cup to unify both competitions. As current European champions, Spain can also claim to have unified the UFWC, the WC and the EC, a feat that only France have previously achieved. [Correction: West Germany also achieved this.]
In the end, Spain needed extra time to see off previous UFWC champs the Netherlands in a game that didn’t quite live up to its billing as one of the biggest international football matches of all time. But while spectators may not have seen the total football feast that was hoped from two of the most attractive sides in world football, there was plenty to entertain.
Spain left Fernando Torres on the bench and went with David Villa and Pedro up front, while Holland delighted football purists by once again lining up wearing shirts numbered 1 to 11. Unfortunately, the game itself provided little else for football purists, with pass and move pretty much abandoned in favour of kick and shove.
To say that the game was hotly contested would be an understatement. From the start, both sides flung themselves into tackles, and English referee Howard Webb was forced to go to his pocket more times than any other World Cup final official. Five yellow cards were shown with the first 30 minutes after a flurry of fouls, the worst of which was surely Nigel de Jong’s chest-high Kung Fu assault on Xabi Alonso.
There were also chances. Sergio Ramos, Villa and Pedro all had half chances for Spain, Wesley Sneijder struck a decent long range effort for Holland, and Arjen Robben forced the best save of the first half from Iker Casillas. Spain just had the edge at half-time, but with the Dutch creating the odd chance the game was still anyone’s.
The best chance of the second half undoubtedly fell to the Dutch, with Robben racing clear of the Spanish defence, only to see his shot deflect wide off the advancing Casillas. At the other end, Villa almost capitalised on a mistake from John Heitinga, but Maarten Stekelenburg blocked his shot. Again, though, there were more fouls than chances, and the 90 minutes elapsed without a goal.
In extra time, with the teams tiring and attacking substitution made by both managers, the game became more stretched. But again Howard Webb was forced to take centre stage. As the fouls continued it was inevitable that someone would be sent off. With 11 minutes to go, that someone was John Heitinga, dismissed after a second booking, perhaps somewhat unluckily given the number of much worse fouls that had gone unpunished from others on the pitch. And the red card would prove to be a decisive factor.
With five minutes of extra time remaining, a Sneijder free kick was deflected behind by both Cesc Fabregas and Casillas, yet Spain were awarded a goal kick. Then Eljero Elia was fouled on the edge of the Spanish box, only for Howard Webb to wave play on. Spain immediately launched a counter attack, surging through the outnumbered Dutch. Fabregas did well to play in Andres Iniesta, who drove the ball past Stekelenburg into the corner of the Dutch net. 1-0 to Spain and, as the 11 men saw the game out, that was how it ended. Football had new champions.
Spain were deserved victors, having shaded the game throughout. But pundits who lambasted Holland’s ‘thuggish’ tactics were perhaps being a little unfair. While 8 Dutch players were booked, 5 Spaniards also had their names taken, so neither side could be considered to have approached the game as angels. And match winner and man of the match Iniesta could very easily have been sent off for lashing out at Mark van Bommel in the 78th minute.
Spain’s win ended the best ever UFWC title run, with the Dutch having gone 21 title matches unbeaten. It is worth taking a moment to mention the achievements of the Netherlands, who took the title into the World Cup and won every tournament game until being stopped by the excellent Spanish. Along the way, the Dutch climbed to 4th in the all-time UFWC rankings, behind only Scotland, England and Argentina – an incredible achievement for a side that didn’t win a UFWC match until 1973, more than a hundred years after the UFWC began. The Netherland’s epic reign as UFWC champions will not be swiftly forgotten.
But now it is Spain that deserve the plaudits. As undisputed unofficial and official champions they join that select list of nations that has held the unified titles. Spain don’t have a fantastic record in the UFWC – they’ve won 16 UFWC matches and are ranked 12th in the all-time table – but, with such a great team, this is their chance to make their mark on the UFWC competition.
There is dancing in the streets of Madrid, but once the celebrations are over, the hard work must continue. For while the World Cup may be over, the UFWC continues as usual. Next up for Spain is a match against Mexico on 11 August. We’ll be watching. Why not stick around and join us?