It was, in the end, a Final for people who enjoy complex, technical, thinking football. There has been plenty of this throughout the tournament, especially from the three European semi-finalists, and the standard of commentary on television and in the press has struggled to keep up. It struggled in the Final too. In musical terms, this was late Bach and late Beethoven, interpreted on screen by fans of Korngold.
Radio 5 have been a cut apart as ever, but even they have had low moments. Graham Taylor and Mark Pougatch proposing an Argentina-style set-up for England (“a morale-raising figure – an Alan Shearer – with experienced coaches around him to help him out”), for instance, although that idea didn’t survive Argentina’s encounter with Germany. And last night, Alan Green decrying an enthralling and skilful stand-off as “one of the worst finals ever” which is an opinion he’s entitled to of course.
For me, the best part was simply being able to sit back and watch Howard Webb cope with the quite incredible levels of psychological pressure which the two teams deliberately placed upon him. Such is the fear factor at huge games like this that even experienced and capable sides like Spain and Holland can spend them doing more to deflect the blame for defeat than to win the thing. And they asked the question of Howard Webb in the first half: are you going to ruin the game? Because we’ll push and push and push and make it hard for you. Because it’s the World Cup Final, ref. And when you’ve given way, and splashed out the red cards, we’ll relax and play – because whatever happens from then on is your fault, Webb, and not ours.
They couldn’t break him. Time and time again Webb’s calm and good judgement kept the lid on things. By the end, the behaviour of the Dutch in particular had shaded into the embarrassing, and Iniesta’s goal, for which he and Spain had waited with such patience and strength of mind, prevented injustice and fiasco.
Webb made one error over 120 minutes – a minor error, which only overheated minds could see as having any effect on the outcome of the game. And even that error could be put down to the Dutch, who were pulling on Webb’s attention yet again as the shot was tipped over.
I was proud of Howard Webb. And, as I’m declaring that the refereeing was successful, only the football questions are left, and there’s only one of those: what happened to Holland?
In the end, Spain were a step too far for them of course, but nonetheless Holland have played better than that against tough opposition. The patience and clever passing which they displayed against Brazil were absent here. It was as if for all their pre-match talk about their long unbeaten run, and their sense of invulnerability, they went into the Final nonetheless with low expectations. What fragile belief they retained didn’t last out Spain’s scintillating first fifteen minutes. Thereafter, the game plan was to kick and harry, and trust that Arjen Robben’s bullet-proof sense of entitlement would pull them out of trouble.
He had the chance to do it, but even he, a man who has never doubted his own ability nor his own right to win despite the most unencouraging of circumstances, went into that chance with one eye over his shoulder for help from the referee.
At least the Dutch knew that they weren’t quite good enough. I don’t think the commentary teams on UK television or in the UK press have that kind of self-knowledge. Anyone who has read Italian sports newspapers, or seen reports from Dutch youth training camps, or (insert your own alternative) must find themselves wondering at the state of football thinking here. Perhaps the idea that what we have here amounts to a football culture is one of the few remaining hangovers from our invention of the modern game in 1870-1885. I didn’t see a football culture in the UK this World Cup. Yes, the usual recycled footie tropes were there, but these don’t change and the Brits rehearse them like lines from a foreign phrasebook or Proverbs. The UK interacts with football with the same personality-driven, storyline approach that it brings to novels, TV drama and reality television.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It works with George Eliot, or Alexander McCall Smith, or Ashes to Ashes. But I worry that the UK wants this approach to deliver footballing success. And the only things down that road are yet more faux outrage and yet more lingering bitterness, betrayal and disappointment.