Spain wins in South Africa's final moment in World Cup spotlight

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; D06

JOHANNESBURG -- The 120 minutes of soccer that yielded Spain's most glorious sporting achievement won't be remembered as one of the more riveting finals in World Cup history.

But in South Africa, the month-long tournament will go down as the moment when a nation fractured along racial, economic and cultural lines became one -- at least for a time -- and, through sports, realized a deeper meaning of its young democracy.

So it was fitting that Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president, made his longed-for first appearance before kickoff Sunday at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium, where Spain prevailed over the Netherlands, 1-0.

Andres Iniesta scored the game-winner that delivered Spain's first World Cup title and relegated the Dutch to the ignoble distinction of being a three-time runner-up for soccer's most coveted trophy.

One week shy of his 92nd birthday, Mandela looked thin and frail, bundled in a black topcoat and hat, as he was driven slowly around the field on a golf cart with his wife, Graca Machel, seated beside him. The anti-apartheid icon and Nobel laureate did not address the crowd but expressed his pride and elation over South Africa's star turn as host through a radiant smile and wave of a gloved hand.

The crowd of 84,490 stood throughout his appearance, which lasted no more than three minutes, then settled in for an all-European final that was guaranteed to produce a first-time World Cup victor.

Spain, the reigning European champion, had never competed in a World Cup final before. And though its population is more than double that of the Netherlands, Dutch fans vastly outnumbered Spanish supporters at Soccer City Stadium.

Meantime, members of the royal families of both nations, including Queen Sofia of Spain and Holland's Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima, took their seats, where they were joined by 15 African heads of state, including South African President Jacob Zuma and his predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Willem de Klerk. (Mandela returned home to watch the match on TV.)

Following a flyover by members of the South African Air Force and a burst of fireworks, Colombian pop goddess Shakira opened the festivities with grass-skirted, hip-shaking rendition of the World Cup's official anthem, "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)."

The Netherlands gave its fans little to cheer in the early going, as Spain hogged possession and got the first meaningful shot on goal.

Denied the ball, Holland resorted to thuggish tactics on defense, with Nigel de Jong delivering an airborne karate kick in the chest to Spain's Xabi Alonso at one point. The strategy kept referee Howard Webb busy. Before it was settled, Webb (a police officer by profession in England) issued 14 yellow cards, a record for a World Cup final.

Spanish players erupted in euphoria when Iniesta broke the deadlock in the second 15-minute period of overtime. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who had been brilliant in defense, broke down in tears even though there was still time on the clock.

Afterward, Coach Vicente del Bosque declared his squad's victory an achievement "that goes beyond sports."

"We've been supported by all the people of Spain," Del Bosque said. "And we are delighted to deliver this triumph."

It was an equal triumph for South Africa, host of the first World Cup on African soil.

Skeptics warned that South Africa's high crime rate, subpar infrastructure and lack of expertise in staging large-scale events would prove a calamity.

But apart from minor glitches (a strike by security guards at a handful of venues, a backlog of arrivals at Durban's King Shaka Airport that caused hundreds to miss the Germany-Spain semifinal), the 2010 World Cup was a success, delivering a unique look, rhythm and feel.

It was marked by the unexpected from the start. Spain opened with a loss to Switzerland. Reigning World Cup champion Italy failed to progress to the second round. And a plastic horn called the vuvuzela became an international sensation (and bane), only to be eclipsed by a psychic octopus named Paul.

For all the national pride and international respect it generated over the past month, even the most optimistic recognize that the World Cup won't solve South Africa's profound problems.

Fully half the country's 49 million people live below the poverty line. One in four adults are unemployed. One in five adults suffer from HIV/AIDS, among the highest incidence rates in the world.

Yet Zuma's words on the eve of Sunday's final were undeniable.

"South Africa has come alive," the president said. "And it will never be the same again after this World Cup."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company