Johannesburg :Giovanni van Bronckhorst removed the yellow captain's armband from his left biceps and handed it to his Dutch teammate Rafael van der Vaart in the 15th minute of extra time Sunday. That ended his World Cup final, and his soccer career.
Three months before the tournament, van Bronckhorst, a 35-year-old defender, said he would retire after a 17-year career spent on the back line of some of Europe's top teams. The final was indeed van Bronckhorst's last match, but it did not end the way he had dreamed, hoisting the World Cup trophy skyward. Instead, he watched from the bench as Spain scored the only goal in a foul-marred defeat.
"We were so close to being world champions, but it didn't work out that way," van Bronckhorst said. "It is very disappointing. I am very proud of the team and everything we have achieved. We came far, we gave everything today."
Van Bronckhorst played his last game with the same resolve he showed in each of his 105 previous appearances for the Netherlands since 1996. He kept his cool under increasingly frustrating circumstances. In the 54th minute, when caught in the vortex created by the dizzying passes of a Spanish give-and-go, he stood by as Spain's Sergio Ramos flung himself into van Bronckhorst's shoulder and then to the ground.
The referee Howard Webb showed van Bronckhorst the game's sixth yellow card. Unlike his teammates, who argued vociferously from the first of their nine cautions to the last, van Bronckhorst simply shrugged.
Perhaps it crossed his mind that he could be further penalized and would be ejected and denied his curtain call, much as Zindine Zidane was four years ago. During the World Cup final in Berlin, Zidane, the France captain, exited his last game before retirement in disgrace after he rammed his head into Italy defender Marco Materazzi's chest, earning an expulsion.
"I played enough finals in my career to know what it is about," van Bronckhorst had said earlier. "You don't play finals, you win finals. That is our mind-set."
Van Bronckhorst was focused on winning the Netherlands' first World Cup title until he was removed from the game. In the 99th minute, he made an expert stop on Andrs Iniesta. Iniesta had received a through pass from Cesc Fbregas in the Dutch penalty area, and van Bronckhorst blocked the ball and knocked it off a Spanish player out of bounds, careful not to give away a corner kick.
Since the match against Slovakia in the Round of 16 match, each match was to be van Bronckhorst's last. He provided veteran leadership in a come-from-behind victory over Brazil in the quarterfinal, then powered the Dutch into the final by scoring on a long-range blast against Uruguay in the semifinal and clearing a ball off the goal line in the final minutes to preserve a 3-2 victory.
"I have dreamed about lifting the trophy," van Bronckhorst said. "As a kid I started watching all the World Cups, and only a few have that moment of receiving and lifting it, like Maradona, Dunga and Cafu."
In the end, it was Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain, not van Bronckhorst, who thrust the World Cup trophy into the sky.