And there was certainly going to be a new world champion: for Spain it was their first World Cup final; it was the third for the Netherlands, having lost their two previous finals in 1974 and 1978.
The Netherlands had always had a complex of not achieving the pinnacle. Besides their European Championship title of 1988, success had always been close, but still eluded them. With some of the best football academies in the world, the Dutch produced a long array of incredibly talented players who were schooled in the Dutch model of total football, combining tactical and physical skills and a well-developed understanding of the game.
The Netherlands always entered the tournaments as favourites, but had largely disappointed. In 2008 the former Feyenoord manager Bert van Marwijk was made manager of the team to lead them to the 2010 World Cup. In qualifying the Dutch made a clean sweep by winning every match. But there was criticism on their style: always being proud of playing beautiful football the Dutch became, like the Argentines, divided on whether to play more cynical in order to get results. The 2010 team was a result of this. The team contained some superb technical players such as Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder, Arsenal's Robbie van Persie and Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben, but also some uncompromising players such as Bayern Munich's Mark van Bommel, Manchester City's Nigel de Jong (known as the lawnmower) or Everton's John Heitinga. While there were occasional brilliant moments, the team played much more result-oriented and physical football than previous Dutch sides. And it seemed to be working.
Arriving at the World Cup the Netherlands won all three matches in the first round against Denmark, Japan and Cameroun. In the last-16 they defeated a Slovakian side that had eliminated the defending World Champions of Italy 2-1 on goals by Robben and Sneijder.
In the quarterfinals the Dutch played the favourites of Brazil. After being down 0-1, Wesley Sneijder scored twice in the second half to give his side a semi-final match against the double world champions from Uruguay.
The Dutch won an exciting match 3-2 and were ready to face Spain in Johannesburg.
As defending European champions Spain entered the tournament as the biggest favourites, although they started with a debacle when they lost their first match 0-1 to Switzerland. It was a match where Spain had possession and chances, but their feeble attack gave no results. Spain lacked a strong striker, and manager Vicente del Bosque sometimes chose to play without a striker, giving Spain a lot of possession but little to show for it. Spain was not an outright defensive, but their strength was surely their outstanding defense around FC Barcelona's Carles Puyol and the Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
In their following two matches Spain nevertheless fought themselves back to win the group by defeating Honduras and Chile. The next three games resulted in three narrow 1-0 victories against Portugal, Paraguay and Germany to make it to the final. All victories were achieved by a high level of possession that had become Spain's trademark, just as FC Barcelona, but without the powerful striking force of the Catalonians. Still, Spain had every reason to be optimistic before the final against the Netherlands, who nevertheless must have noted the possibility of winning against Spain's low-scoring side.
It was not a nice match. Netherlands came out to destroy Spanish possession, and had already been booked five times in the first 30 minutes. Nigel de Jong should have been given a direct red card by a vicious karate kick against Xabi Alonso, but a forgiving referee Howard Webb only booked him and the Dutch attacks did nothing but break the rhythm of the match.
This was the least likely Dutch side in the history of football.
While not being able to play as polished as before, Spain had most possession; Sergio Ramos had a great chance on a header that was saved by Stekelenburg, but otherwise it was a hugely disappointing first half.
The ugliness continued in the second half, and the increasingly frustrated Spanish also joined the Dutch side's physicality; while they continued having more possession, Arjen Robben had the biggest chance of the match to put the Dutch ahead after Wesley Sneijder had torn apart the Spanish defense, but Robben was prevented by the great Iker Casillas.
In the 83rd minute, Arjen Robben had another a good run against Casillas but Spain's captain again saved his side.
Before that Sergio Ramos had missed a free header to put the Spanish ahead, but in the end it was 0-0 of a very ugly final that went into overtime.
Spain tried to put pressure on the Dutch with Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas coming in for Xabi Alonso. And Fabregas had the first big chance of extra time when he missed a goal alone with Stekelenburg. In the second half of extra time the Dutch were finally given a red card when John Heitinga brought down Fernando Torres. And soon after this Spain scored the winning goal after a controversial situation where the Dutch should clearly have awarded a corner-kick after a free kick.
But the Netherlands had made no friends, and nobody really cared about the Dutch protests after Andres Iniesta smashed the ball in with his right foot after Fabregas' through-pass caught Iniesta on-side.
Spain were champions.
The fourth 1-0 victory for Spain in a row made them the least-scoring World Champion ever. Still, a well-deserved title, and nobody felt sorry for the Netherlands. It was a record final in terms of yellow cards (12), and it was a pity that the first final on African soil should have been such an ugly match after a wonderful tournament. A historical victory, not only because Spain won for the first time. It was also the first victory of a European side outside Europe.
11th July 2010
Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg
Referee: Howard Webb, England
Spain: Casillas, Pique, Carles Puyol, Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Capdevilla, Busquets, Alonso (Fabregas), Villa (Torres), Pedro (Navas)
Netherlands: Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Heitinga (RC, 109), Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst (Braafheid), Van Bommel, De Jong (Van der Vaart), Kuyt (Elia), Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben
Spain-Netherlands 1-0 (after extra time)
1-0 Iniesta (116)