Dutch heads were down both literally and metaphorically as the defeated finalists left Soccer City in Johannesburg on Sunday night. Long after midnight, the Netherlands players, coaching staff and officials were still struggling to come to terms with their extra-time defeat by Spain in the Final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.

"It's hurting. It's so disappointing. A chance like that may never come along again," Arjen Robben told FIFA.com after the match in front of an 84,490 sell-out crowd at the magnificent temple of football. The Elftal had gone 25 games unbeaten, winning all of their last 14, but their most important match since losing the 1978 FIFA World Cup Final also ended in defeat. "That's football. One team has to lose, and today it was us,” Robben continued.

Andres Iniesta struck the only goal of the game with just four minutes of extra time remaining, ending this Dutch generation's dream of going one better than their 1970s counterparts and winning the sport's most prized trophy for the first time. "Once you've made the Final, you obviously want to win it," Nigel de Jong told FIFA.com, although the combative midfielder sought to keep matters in proportion, adding: "Obviously, making the Final is a tremendous achievement in itself, no question about it."

"We've come so close, and that’s the biggest disappointment," said captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst, making no attempt to hide his frustration. The 35-year-old veteran earned his 106th and last international cap on Sunday night, but was denied the chance to end his career on a spectacular note by lifting the famous trophy into the night sky. "If we'd taken one of our chances, we might well have gone on to win. But I'm still proud of this team," Van Bronckhorst added.

If we'd taken one of our chances, we might well have gone on to win. But I'm still proud of this team.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst

The defeat was down less to the Dutch underperforming than to the exceptional quality of their opponents. Spain were the more attack-minded team throughout, created far more openings, and ultimately deserved the right to call themselves world champions for the first time. "Let’s not forget we were up against a genuinely class team,” noted Robben. “You have to say the better team won," echoed coach Bert van Marwijk.

At the same time, the Netherlands had only themselves to blame for not converting one of their rare but thoroughly presentable chances. Robben was denied twice in one-on-one situations with Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas when he might have handed his side a precious lead. "We had our chances, but you’ve got to take your chances. That aside, Spain are a terrific team,” said Dirk Kuyt.

Just hours after leaving the stadium, the Oranje delegation had boarded their plane home, where the bitter defeat will not stop thousands turning out to hail their vanquished heroes. The schedule on Tuesday includes an audience with Queen Beatrix and Prime Minister Balkenende, followed by a parade by boat on Amsterdam’s canals, repeating the celebrations following their triumph at the 1988 UEFA European Championship.

"We're feeling down now, but we'll have to see how it is in a few hours," said De Jong. "We can leave for home with our heads held high." The FIFA World Cup runners-up are back in action in a friendly against Ukraine just a month from now, although they will no longer be able to call on captain Van Bronckhorst, nor on Andre Ooijer, who turned 36 on the day of the Final and has also announced his international retirement.