That play in the 116th minute has justly given Spain its first World Cup title. Yet, apart from the cheering in Spain, the biggest reaction to the final has been one of revulsion from the international media. ESPN pundits to a man criticized the way the game was played, especially on the Dutch side, and The Guardian is reporting as a matter of fact that the "display of anti-football" let Europe down.
In the end, it was persistent Dutch fouling that did them in. John Heitinga was on a yellow when he tried to pull back Iniesta on the 109th minute, and by this point, Webb had no qualms producing the long-coming red card.
Most of the criticism post-match is being aimed at the Dutch, for three reasons: first, a sense that the Dutch lacked the courage to come out and attack; second, revulsion at the tactical rejection of the "total football" mentality that is Holland's great contribution to the sport; and third, the fact that, at least according to the referee, the Dutch were the biggest offenders on the day: nine yellow cards compared to "only" five for Spain, and were whistled for 28 fouls, compared to 19 for Spain. One certainly, in the wake of that display of persistent fouling, can better understand why Dutch legend Johan Cruyff stated before the game that he hoped Spain would win.
Spain, however, had 57 percent of possession—12 full minutes more of possession while the ball was actively in play, and few could deny that they were the better team on the day, even though they were never comfortable. Indeed, it would be a shame if the criticism of the final is allowed to overshadow Spain's achievement—not just winning, but blending attractive soccer with serious resilience and a willingness to give as good as it got in the tackling and toughness departments.
Spain won all four knockout matches 1-0, against four extremely tough opponents. The match against Portugal was a hard-fought nail-biter; Spain got its bit of luck against Paraguay when the South American side missed a penalty and eventually prevailed; Spain then bested European powers Germany and Holland in tight affairs. With (slight) apologies to those offended by analogies to other sports, that's like a college hoops team winning the NCAA title by beating a No. 4 seed, a No. 2 seed, and two No. 1 seeds in the final four games of the tournament—all by single-digit margins.
Put another way, Spain stuck to its football principles even when they did not produce blowouts, and even when other teams tried to knock them off stride. The classic antidote to Barcelona-style passing football has always been and probably always will be the rough tackle, the attempt to physically intimidate and knock the slick passers off stride. Passing teams that can't deal with it end up losing. Spain could, both by responding with aggressive tackling of its own and by refusing—albeit barely—to concede a goal.
The Spanish gave up a fairly cheap goal against the Swiss in the opening match but after that it was five clean sheets from six, a noteworthy display at any level and remarkable considering the level of opposition they faced. That's a good thing too, because falling behind at any stage might have been fatal. But by not falling behind, Spain could keep passing that ball through Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso, confident that in time the goal would in come—as each time it in fact did.
So count this as a victory for passing football, albeit one made possible by defensive toughness and a certain unflappability—a refusal to let aggressive opposition tactics get under their skins. Spain were not only the best team in this tournament, they were the coolest—no flopping, no whiff of cynicism, no temper tantrums or histrionics.
In short, Spain looks set to continue to show the world both how to play passing football and how to play the game the right way in the next few years—with the further imprimatur of credibility that comes with being world champions.