Exhaustion etched on their faces, fatigued bodies ready to betray them, the players knew just one goal would be enough to win the elusive World Cup for their nation.
As the clock ticked toward penalty kicks, the shivering crowd at Soccer City Stadium grew anxious.
Spain or the Netherlands would win its first championship if only someone could find the net.
Andres Iniesta did, and Spain rules the soccer world at long, long last.
“We have all done an incredible job,” he said Sunday night, shortly after the 1-0 extra-time victory. “I don’t think we even realize what we have done.”
They beat the Netherlands on Sunday to go one better than the European title Espana won in 2008.
Spain won its last four games by a score of 1-0 – a tight margin that characterized the month-long tournament. The World Cup featured a record 31 one-goal decisions out of 64 matches – four more than the previous high set in 2002, according to STATS LLC.
[photogallerylink id=19053 align=left]This final was 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. In the end, it was 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 left to play, including injury time.
“When I struck it, it just had to go in,” Iniesta said.
For the Dutch and their legions of orange-clad fans wearing everything from jerseys to jumpsuits to clown gear to pajamas, it was yet another disappointment.
Even with their first World Cup title tantalizingly within reach, they failed in the final for the third time. This one might have been the most bitter because, unlike 1974 and 1978, the Netherlands was unbeaten not only in this tournament, but in qualifying for the first World Cup staged in South Africa.
Soccer City was soaked in Oranje, from the seats painted in that hue throughout the stadium to pretty much everyone seated in them, including crown prince Willem-Alexander. It was different when they lost to hosts West Germany and Argentina in previous finals; this time, the Dutch were something of a home team. And the visitors won.
Spain had pockets of supporters, too, with fans dressed in red and scattered throughout the stadium. Among those cheering were Queen Sofia, Rafael Nadal and Pau Gasol.
Spain’s fans might have been in the minority, but when the final whistle blew, they were tooting their vuvuzelas with a vengeance in tribute to their champions.
A second straight World Cup final headed into extra time, with the goalkeepers unbeatable. Stekelenburg, relatively inexperienced on the international level, made a spectacular left leg save when Fabregas broke free early in overtime.
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.
And with that, Iniesta tore off his jersey and raced to the corner where he was mobbed by his teammates.
Several Dutch players wiped away tears as they received their runners-up medals – yet again. They had won every qualifying match and all six previous games in South Africa before the bitter ending.
The Netherlands now has more victories in World Cup games without a title than any nation: 19. Spain held that dubious record with 24.
Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk took off his silver medal as soon as he left the podium, a look of disgust on his face.
The winners struggled but managed to lift their coach, Vicente del Bosque, in the air in celebration.
“This is immeasurable for Spain,” he said.
Then they made a quick costume change from their sweat-soaked blue jerseys into their traditional red ones.
Iker Casillas, the captain, accepted the trophy from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who was bundled in a scarf since temperatures dipped into the 40s on this chilly winter’s night in the Southern Hemisphere.
Casillas, voted the World Cup’s top goalkeeper, kissed the distinctive gold award and raised it for all to see while cameras flashed and confetti flew throughout the still-full stadium.
“This really is quite a cup,” Casillas said. “The European Championship was the most important moment of our lives, but today is much bigger than anything else.”
Soon, the entire team and staff gathered at midfield for a group photo. The players bounced up and down to the World Cup theme song, then took a victory lap as the trophy was passed to each member of the squad.
“It’s the most beautiful that there is. It’s spectacular,” Iniesta said.
Aside from a European title in 1988, the Dutch have been classic underachievers on the pitch.
Yet the Spaniards haven’t been much better. Other than Euro championships in 1964 and 2008, they rarely have contended in major tournaments. At least the Netherlands made those two World Cup finals and advanced to the semifinals in 1998.
Spain joined West Germany and France as the only nations to simultaneously hold the world and European titles. West Germany followed the European title with the 1974 World Cup and France won the 1998 Cup before winning the Euros two years later.
The Spaniards also won the championship with the fewest goals, eight.
Second-ranked Spain started this World Cup in the worst way, losing to Switzerland. But Spain won every game after that, including a 1-0 victory over powerful Germany that was far more one-sided than the score indicated. No other nation has won the World Cup after losing its opener.
“They made it very difficult for us to play comfortably,” Del Bosque said. “It was a very intense match.”
Yet the most dangerous player Sunday was Netherlands forward Arjen Robben. He had a rare breakaway in the 62nd minute after a brilliant through pass from Wesley Sneijder. He had the ball on his preferred left foot, but a charging Casillas barely got his right leg on the shot to deflect it wide of the gaping net.
Then it was Stekelenburg’s turn, holding his ground after a misplay in front of the net gave the ever-potent Villa an open shot.
As play opened up, the crowd of 84,490 got quieter in nervous anticipation of the goal that would win the World Cup.
Robben again looked as though he might get it with a burst of speed past the defense, but Casillas sprinted from his net and smothered the ball before Robben could take a shot.
“You felt that the team that would score first would win,” Van Marwijk said. “We had two great chances through Arjen. We made a real game out of it.”
Before the game, former South African president Nelson Mandela received a huge ovation when he was driven onto the field on a golf cart. A smiling Mandela waved to the fans as the vuvuzelas buzzed throughout Soccer City.
And after the game, Iniesta took time to salute Paul the Octopus, who correctly picked the winner of eight matches.
“As for the octopus, what can I say?” Iniesta said, smiling. “We won and I’m sure the octopus will be more popular in Spain.”