JOHANNESBURG // Spain were crowned world champions last night after defeating Holland 1-0 in an ill-tempered World Cup final at Soccer City. With the match scoreless deep in extra time, Andres Iniesta, voted man of the match and clearly the best player on the pitch, secured the Iberians' first World Cup triumph with the deciding goal - after 116 minutes of football and only four minutes from a dreaded penalty shoot-out.
Spain's first final had produced their first championship. Holland, however, fell at the final hurdle for the third time. The Dutch players and fans hung their heads when Howard Webb, the referee from England, blew his whistle to end the match and send the La Roja loyalists among the crowd of 84,490 into ecstasy, shouting "Espana! Espana!" While the game was hardly a classic, the final of Africa's first World Cup was about more than football.
Before the game, Soweto's roads, paths and dirt tracks were awash with colour. A sea of fans flowed, driven by a current of patriotic pride, in one direction: Soccer City. Street vendors, hawking merchandise of every variety, shape and size, did a brisk business with souvenir hunters. Hopeful cries of "Flags, flags, flags," and "Spain scarves, Holland hats" merged with the intriguing scents and flavours that filtered skywards from dozens of kerbside food stalls.
As the clock clicked down to kick-off, increasingly desperate fans - not all of them followers of the finalist nations - hunted for tickets. "I've been here since noon," said Federico Cino, 24, a Brazilian from Sao Paolo. "There are some tickets available, but the people want too much. It's been really hard, people are asking for US$1,000 (Dh3,670). "I'm been here since the World Cup started, but this is the final and I am going to watch it no matter what. I'm willing to spend all my remaining money, $500, to get in."
Thousands of Dutch fans gathered around the official Oranje supporters-club bus hours before kick-off. "This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Olaf Smit, a Dutchman. "I was a small boy in 1974 and 1978," referring to Holland's previous final appearances, "so who knows how old I will be when we next reach one. I booked my tickets through the Oranje supporters club back in January. They cost $900 each, but it is worth it."
"Third time lucky," shouted Michael Strikker, Smit's travelling partner, as they headed for the turnstiles along with thousands of other expectant fans. Spanish supporters were just as excited, and at least one was banking on the skills of a German octopus which has been predicting winners throughout the tournament -- and backed Spain in the final. "This is the single-most-important day of my life, I can't believe we reached the final," said Rodolfo Garcia, from Spain. "Plus, Paul the psychic octopus is on our side. We cannot lose."
It was not just the Dutch and Spanish fans who kept the entrepreneurial face-painters busy. "My girlfriend and I are supporting Spain, but my parents and sister are going for Holland," said Kyle Burger, 23, from Johannesburg. "Everyone South African has taken on a team after Bafana Bafana went out. We support good soccer. It's incredible to have the final here and we will make sure the atmosphere is African."
As Burger predicted, the distinctly Orange pre-game carnival turned African for the impressive closing ceremony. With the pitch transformed into a giant performance arena, a capacity crowd was treated to traditional dancing, stirring projections and ear-splitting music. As the assembled royals, politicians and celebrities queued up to watch, Shakira, the Colombian pop star, got the show going with a rendition of Waka Waka, the tournament's official anthem.
After the ceremony, the Soccer City horde was greeted by a very special guest. Nelson Mandela, 91, the former South African president was driven around the pitch for a crowd-pleasing lap of honour. Mandela, smiling and waving, exited to the jubilant crowd's cheers of "Madiba, Madiba," the name South Africans use for Mandela. "This tournament has been a blessing for South Africa and we are very honoured to be hosting the final in Soweto," said SJ Thema, who was attending the final with family and friends.
Moments before kick-off, Fabio Cannavaro, the captain of defending champions Italy, walked the World Cup trophy, encased in a Louis Vuitton box, onto the pitch. It was his last action as the Azzurri skipper; the defender, who has signed a two-year contract with Dubai-based Pro League club Al Ahli, has retired from international football. As the teams prepared to enter the Soweto cauldron, a spectator broke the security cordon and ran towards the shimmering trophy. The fan, who initially appeared to be intent on lifting the cup, took off his hat, but was tackled to the ground as he tried to put it on the trophy.