JOHANNESBURG - Exhaustion etched on their faces, fatigued bodies ready to betray them, the players knew just one goal would be enough to win the elusive World Cup for their nation.
As the clock ticked toward penalty kicks, the shivering crowd at Soccer City Stadium grew anxious.
Spain or the Netherlands would win its first championship if only someone could find the net.
Andrés Iniesta did, and Spain rules the soccer world at long, long last.
“We have all done an incredible job,” Iniesta said Sunday night after the 1-0 extra-time victory. “I don’t think we even realize what we have done.”
They beat the Netherlands to go one better than the European title Espana won in 2008.
Spain won its last four World Cup matches by a score of 1-0 – a tight margin that characterized the month-long tournament.
The World Cup featured a record 31 one-goal decisions out of 64 matches — four more than the previous high set in 2002, according to STATS LLC.
This final was a physical test of attrition that sometimes turned dirty – a finals-record 14 yellow cards were handed out and the Dutch finished with 10 men.
In the end, it was Iniesta breaking free in the penalty area, taking a pass from Cesc Fabregas and putting a right-footed shot from 8 yards just past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg with about seven minutes left to play, including injury time.
“When I struck it, it just had to go in,” Iniesta said.
For the Dutch and their legions of orange-clad fans wearing everything from jerseys to jumpsuits to clown gear to pajamas, it was yet another disappointment.
Even with their first World Cup title tantalizingly within reach, they failed in the final for the third time.
This one might have been the most bitter because, unlike 1974 and 1978, the Netherlands was unbeaten not only in this tournament, but in qualifying for the first World Cup staged in South Africa.
Soccer City was soaked in Oranje, from the seats painted in that hue throughout the stadium to pretty much everyone seated in them, including crown prince Willem-Alexander.
It was different when they lost to hosts West Germany and Argentina in previous finals; this time, the Dutch were something of a home team. And the visitors won.
Spain had pockets of supporters, too, with fans dressed in red and scattered throughout the stadium. Among those cheering were Queen Sofia, tennis ace Rafael Nadal and basketball star Pau Gasol.
Spain’s fans might have been in the minority, but when the final whistle blew, they were tooting their vuvuzelas with a vengeance in tribute to their champions.
A second consecutive World Cup final headed into extra time, with the goalkeepers unbeatable. Stekelenburg, relatively inexperienced on the international level, made a spectacular left leg save when Fabregas broke free early in overtime.
The goal in the 116th minute came off a turnover by the Dutch defense that Fabregas controlled just outside the penalty area. Iniesta stayed on the right and sneaked in to grab the pass and put his shot to the far post. Stekelenburg barely brushed it with his fingertips as it soared into the net.
And with that, Iniesta tore off his jersey and raced to the corner where he was mobbed by his teammates.
Several Dutch players wiped away tears as they received their runners-up medals — yet again. They had won every qualifying match and all six previous games in South Africa before the bitter ending.
Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk took off his silver medal as soon as he left the podium, a look of disgust on his face.
The winners struggled but managed to lift their coach, Vicente del Bosque, in the air in celebration.
“This is immeasurable for Spain,” he said.
Then they made a quick costume change from their blue jerseys into their traditional red ones.
Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the captain, accepted the trophy from FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who was bundled in a scarf since temperatures dipped into the 40s on this chilly winter’s night in the Southern Hemisphere.
Casillas, voted the World Cup’s top goalkeeper, kissed the distinctive gold award and raised it for all to see while cameras flashed and confetti flew throughout the still-full stadium.
“This really is quite a cup,” Casillas said. “The European Championship was the most important moment of our lives, but today is much bigger than anything else.”
Soon, the entire team and staff gathered at midfield for a group photo.
“It’s the most beautiful that there is. It’s spectacular,” Iniesta said.
The most dangerous player was Netherlands forward Arjen Robben. He had a breakaway in the 62nd minute after a brilliant through pass from Wesley Sneijder. He had the ball on his preferred left foot, but a charging Casillas barely got his leg on the shot to deflect it wide.