World Cup review, Part V: Spain and the lasting legacy of 2010

This is part five of our series looking back at the 2010 World Cup. To read part four, click here.


Desiree Ellis was supposed to be at the World Cup final. She had arranged tickets for herself and a few friends who had driven up to Johannesburg from Cape Town — friends who could not easily afford to attend one the most sought-after experiences. But then the SABC called — it was desperate for an in-studio analyst. Her ticket went to another friend.

Such a gesture from Ellis, now the Banyana Banyana coach, is not forgotten. “Whenever I see him, he says ‘thank you very much, it was the most amazing moment ever’.”

And that, if we’re to distil the legacy of the 2010 World Cup, is what it was all about — the opportunity to have a front-row seat to history unfolding in front of you; to live through a scene that probably won’t be repeated for generations.

As a World Cup ambassador, Ellis travelled the country – along with Phil Masinga, Mark Fish and Doctor Khumalo – to talk to people in villages, schools and even prisons about the upcoming spectacle. 


After the first kick-off she was a fan. A fan, broadcast commitments notwithstanding, who had the privilege of taking in the best football the planet had to offer. Her excitement comes across over the phone: any pretence of this being a formal interview quickly falls away as we reminisce about the endless memories that month created.

There was one team more than any other that caught her eye.

“You could see the likes of Germany were there or thereabout. Even Brazil,” she says. “[But] the football of Spain was something else to watch. They deserved to win it, they were almost out of the World Cup, they lost their first game. That was a wake-up call and after that they were meticulous in everything that they did.”

Meticulous only begins to describe the Spanish. The players of that epoch had evolved beyond footballers. They were storytellers, rebel poets, surrealists who seemed to break every rule as they created art on the pitch.

South Africa is where they would pen their magnum opus. 

Until that World Cup cycle, Spain had spent decades swallowing disappointment and underachievement. From Alfredo Di Stéfano to Raúl, the Iberians had never managed to gain the success that was befitting of the pre-eminent names that threw on the royal red shirt. 

That all changed when a sublime set of players matured into the team that strolled to Euro 2008. When the veteran coach Vicente del Bosque got a hold of them, he moulded the group into one of the greatest teams the world has ever seen.

He successfully ensured any residual bitterness from Real Madrid and Barcelona clashes stayed strictly at the door — an issue which, as many a predecessor found out, is not a minor one.

With that taken care of he could go about his core business: taking the greatest club side in a generation and making it even better. Take the maestros of Barcelona — Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Pedro — embolden them with the steel of Madridistas like Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso, and you have an outfit ready to take on the world.

Which is precisely what they did. After that aforementioned faux paux — the surprise loss to Switzerland — Spain turned on the style and never looked back. 

Ellis saw it first hand in the semifinal against Germany … just about. 

That night in Durban would leave ugly blue eye on an otherwise excellently hosted event. We’ve spoken at length in this series about how South Africa overcame much of the doubt that had hovered the event. This is one time when the sceptics were singing in vindication.

Ellis had to watch the first half of the game from a tent at the airport as she waited impatiently for her friend to arrive. They were the lucky ones.

At least 800 people missed the entire match that night because planes were not able to land at King Shaka International. Some reports claimed it was a Fifa jet that was blocking the runway; others that the private jets of Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio were given priority.

The reason hardly mattered to those stuck in the sky when the opening whistle sounded. A full-on riot erupted in one plane as passengers marched to the cockpit – the pilot having to threaten them with arrest to break it up. On another plane, a distraught father broke down in tears after he was unable to console his weeping sons.

Whereas the World Cup brought immeasurable joy to thousands across the country, the blameless patrons circling above Durban felt its disappointment and anguish.

As an ambassador, Ellis, at least, was able to save her friend’s experience.

“It absolutely made his day because Lucas Radebe was there and he got to speak to him. So I made his day,” she recalls. “Those are the kind of experiences that don’t happen normally and just to be able to go to these games is something else.”

A few days later she found herself in the towering, grey SABC studios for the final game. The gig, incidentally, had given her memorable encounters with her own idols — a lifelong Manchester United fan, she was overjoyed to learn Dwight Yorke and Paul Ince would be working alongside her. 

The ferociousness of the final was not lost on anyone who had to make do with watching it on TV. For 120 minutes, the Netherlands and Spain skirmished with plenty of flashpoints and very few openings to speak of. The indelible image of Nigel de Jong driving his boot into the chest of Alonso has come to define the game as much as any footballing moment. Depending on who you ask, referee Howard Webb either did fantastically to preserve the spectacle or lost control of his pitch. What is a fact is the 14 yellow cards he issued were more than double that seen in any other final. (There was also a red in extra time.)  

Arjen Robben had the clearest opportunities that did materialise in the original 90 minutes. Twice he was put through on goal only to be denied by Iker Casillas, Spain’s iconic keeper doing particularly well with the first to leave out a pivotal trailing leg. 

“It was [tough] and the tackles were fierce,” Ellis remembers. “The Netherlands had a few early chances and if Robben had maybe scored his chances then things might have turned out differently. But it was end-to-end stuff and top quality.

“You could see total football on both sides. The people who invented total football and those that perfected total football.”

At the death, the latter finally bore fruit. Cesc Fàbregas grabbed the loose ball, slid in Iniesta and the Barca conductor made history by firing Spain to it’s first World Cup title — a fitting end to a month of unforgettable action.

And just like that it was over. Years of tireless planning on and off the pitch coming to an abrupt end. Everyone involved could return to a sense of normalcy — a continued journey in the sport for some, something else entirely for others. No one, however, would forget what took place in front of their eyes.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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