Molinaro: Spain is soccer's new world leader

Spain freed itself from the shackles of more than a half-century of underachievement with Sunday's 1-0 extra-time win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final.

La Furia Roja finally freed from their shackles

Spain captain Iker Casillas hoisted the World Cup trophy after Sunday's victory over the Netherlands. ((Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images))

South Africa witnessed the birth of soccer's new world order on Sunday, one with a spectacularly bright red tinge.

Spain finally freed itself from the shackles of more than a half-century of underachievement as Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal to propel La Furia Roja, the Red Fury, to a 1-0 extra-time win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final.

Iniesta's brilliant finish in the 116th minute served as the stiff wind that swelled the sails of the Spanish armada, navigating the sturdy vessel through choppy Dutch waters before arriving at its final port of call — the promised land and a historic World Cup title.

Magical Mandela moment

Former president Nelson Mandela made a memorable appearance at Sunday's World Cup final in Johannesburg.

The South African icon greeted fans inside Soccer City Stadium during a pre-game ceremony, before returning home where he was expected to watch the match on television.

Mandela, who turns 92 on July 18, played a crucial role in bringing the World Cup to this country, and for many he is the very symbol of South Africa's post-apartheid era and the Rainbow Nation.

But the Nobel laureate has been in frail health and cancelled his appearance at the World Cup's June 11 opening ceremony after his 13-year-old great-granddaughter died in a car accident on the eve the tournament.

Other dignitaries, heads of state and celebrities who attended the match included South African president Jacob Zuma, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Queen Sofia of Spain, tenor Placido Domingo, actor Morgan Freeman and model Naomi Campbell.

Spain is only the eighth World Cup winner in the 80-year history of the storied competition, entering the hallowed halls of soccer's pantheon where it joins Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy and Uruguay.

New ground

Spain also becomes the first European nation to win the World Cup on a foreign continent.

Iniesta should have won the Golden Ball award as the tournament MVP, but the sublime Spanish creator was overlooked, as the honour went to Uruguay's Diego Forlan.

The Spaniards were already considered the best team in world soccer by most critics after winning 49 times and losing just two of their previous 54 matches since November 2006. Sunday's victory just made it official, allowing Spain to add soccer's greatest title to their impressive curriculum vitae.

Still, questions remained about their ability to win "the big one" ahead of this tournament.

Indeed, the Spaniards qualified for 12 World Cups before this one but managed to advance beyond the quarter-finals only once, in 1950. Its lone international success prior to winning Euro 2008 was in 1964 when it won the European Championship on home soil.

No doubting Spaniards

But nobody could possibly doubt their credentials now - not after they rebounded from a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland in the first round to sweep all before them en route to the final where they dispatched a dour Dutch side.

One can't help but wonder what exactly they're putting in the water over in Spain. Surely, traces of stardust must be pouring out of Spanish faucets.

The Iberian powerhouse produced a slew of world-class athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their fields of endeavour in recent years, including tennis great Rafael Nadal, F1 driver Fernando Alonso, motorcycle racer Jorge Lorenzo, cyclist Alberto Contador and the NBA's Pau Gasol.

But soccer is Spain's obsession, rivalling Catholicism as the nation's major faith, and no victory in the history of Spanish sports will ever be sweeter than this one.

As a sporting spectacle, Sunday's final was a disappointment.

Dubious record

English referee Howard Webb handed out a World Cup final record 14 yellow cards and sent off Dutch defender John Heitinga in extra time. The foul-filled matched never fell into a rhythm, depriving the 84,490 fans in attendance at Soccer City Stadium of their money's worth.

After the final whistle, furious Dutch players surrounded Webb, claiming Iniesta was offside when he scored and were also irate that Spanish defender Carlos Puyol escaped punishment when hauling down Arjen Robben late in regulation time.

The Spaniards' tried to use their beloved Tiki Taka - the lyrical name given to its slick and fluid possession-conscious game — to wear down their opponents, like they've done to stunning effect so many times in South Africa.

But it's hard not to walk away without bloody knuckles when you've been dragged into a street fight and are no longer playing by Marquess of Queensberry rules.

Such was the situation the Spaniards found themselves in.

The Spaniards dictated the pace of the match for the opening 45 minutes, but were continually thwarted by an aggressive and destructive Dutch side that kept kicking at their heels.

The physical and tough-tackling Dutch managed to contain Spain's dynamic midfield trio of Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso in a first half that saw goalkeepers Maarten Stekelenburg and Iker Casillas both make big saves.

Spain was rattled, and clearly thrown off its game. Stray passes and harried sequences of play became the norm from the Spanish in the second half, as the Netherlands began to lead the dance.

Robben squandered two glorious scoring chances on breakaways, the first coming in the 62nd minute when Wesley Sneijder fed him a defence-splitting pass, only to see Casillas make a reflex save.

With eight minutes left in regulation, Robben breezed past Puyol, but he dawdled inside the penalty area, allowing Casillas to rush out and smother the ball.

The game seemed destined for a penalty shootout. Then came the turning point came, in the 109th minute, when Heitinga earned his second yellow card, this time for tugging down Iniesta.

Iniesta buries Dutch

Seven minutes later, the FC Barcelona star made the Dutch pay for their lack of discipline, breaking into the penalty area and taking a pass from teammate Cesc Fabregas before slotting it by Stekelenburg.

It was a brilliant finish by Ineista, scored with typical Spanish flair and fluidity, and worthy of World Cup winning goal.

While admiration and praise should rightly be lavished upon Spain for their historic win, at the same time, one can't help but feel pangs of sympathy for the Netherlands.

Like their Spanish counterparts, the Dutch have been burdened by the unbearable weight of past failures, losing back-to-back World Cup finals in 1974 (against Germany) and 1978 (versus Argentina).

The incomparable Johan Cruyff and the mighty Oranje bequeathed Total Football to the world, winning plaudits for their enterprising and inventive style of play.

The vintage Netherlands squad of '74 remains firmly lodged between the legendary Hungarians (circa 1954) and Brazilians (1982) as the greatest teams never to win the World Cup.

The Dutch side that graced South Africa with its presence was hardly in the same class as the Mighty Magyars or the Zico-inspired Selecao, but losing three World Cup finals is a heartache that no country should have to bear — especially the Netherlands, a nation with a rich and proud soccer culture.