Spain Writes History

Rarely is there a team that lives up to expectations on a sustained basis. Spain can be easily counted among them as they continue their domination in world football. Indranath Mukherjee sketches their glorious journey in Euro 2012

Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain became the first European nation to win the World Cup outside European soil when they triumphed in South Africa in 2008. Euro 2012 pre-tournament big question was whether they will be the first ever nation to successfully defend the Henri Delaunay trophy. They had a 100% record in the qualification with eight wins from as many games and followed it up with a 5-0 thrashing of Venezuela in a friendly. However, in other friendlies post World Cup 2010, Spain did show glimpses of doubt – losing 4-1 to Argentina, 4-0 to Portugal, 2-1 to Italy and 1-0 to England. But in the matches that matter, Spain’s record under Del Bosque is almost flawless. Although the 61-year old modest and unassuming man as always shun the limelight by giving it to his players: “I feel very privileged to have coincided with a generation of such brilliance”.

Spain came to Euro 2012 as the clear favourites although Juan Castro of Marca thought that “Germany is in a strong position to end the Spanish era.” Netherlands also came to the tournament with a near perfect qualifying round scoring an impressive 38 goals in 10 games with nine wins. Italy also had a terrific run in the qualification campaign and the curious (or spurious) correlation between scandals in their domestic football leagues and success in international tournaments (World Cups 1982 and 2006) had ominous signs for other teams.

Spain had their share of problems with Carlos Puyol and David Villa missing the tournament owing to injury and all the experts thought that due to the indifferent form of talismanic front man Fernando Torres, the Athletic Bilbao target man Fernando Llorente will be at the receiving end of all the chances that the fluent Spanish midfield would create. But Del Bosque preferred tiki-taka over being more direct; as a result Jesus Navas got very little playing time and Llorente did not get any.

Vicente Del Bosque, the soft-spoken football genius did something which none had done before, twice

Spain’s first group match was against Italy and Del Bosque started with a headless formation. The team started playing a version of tiki-taka which was more about passing the ball to wear the opposition out than creating chances for them. Two numbers from the 2010 World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany sum up the result of this strategy – Spain had produced 160 passes more and Germany ran 1.2 miles more. The Italians, however, were up for the challenge and played a surprisingly attacking brand of football. The first goal of the match came in the 61st minute when Antonio Di Natale, who came from the bench in place of Mario Balotelli, first touched the ball. Spain was quick to react to get the equaliser through Cesc Fàbregas. The match finished 1-1 with the Italian side a tad more impressive.

Spain approached the second game against Republic of Ireland little differently with scorer of the first game Fàbregas giving way to Fernando Torres in the starting line-up. The impact was immediate; Torres scored his first of the two in the game in the fourth minute. Spain went on to win the match 4-0.

Spain was back to six midfielders and no striker in the final group game against Croatia and played their brand of offensive yet defensive football. Navas who came in as a substitute scored the only goal of the match in the 88th minute.

The quarter-final between Spain and France turned out to be one of the most underwhelming matches of the tournament. Spain continued to play without any striker and Laurent Blanc’s French side looked overcautious to stop Andrés Iniesta while Xabi Alonso celebrated his century of international caps with a goal in either half of the game.

Xabi Alonso celebrated his 100th international cap with a brace

The semi-final between Spain and Portugal was a much awaited affair with the Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo looking to drag his team to the peak. Del Bosque gave a surprise start to the Sevilla front man Álvaro Negredo who remained anonymous until replaced by Fàbregas in the 54th minute. After a not-so-inspiring 90 minutes, Spain did show some flair in the extra time and finally won the game 4-2 on penalties. Del Bosque later revealed that Cesc wanted to take the fifth penalty to be able to take the winner whereas Cristiano Ronaldo who was to take Portugal’s fifth one did not get to take his as the match was already decided.

The penalty of the tournament until this game was the atrocious Panenka by Andrea Pirlo against England in the quarter-final. Sergio Ramos, whose penalty in the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich had reached outer space as per rumour, did a Panenka with élan.

The Panenka by Sergio Ramos was more than a penalty; it was about making a statement

The final was all where it started in Group C. By then not everyone was convinced about Spain and Italy looked solid as ever with a complete demolition of the Germans in the semi-final where even the postman celebrated. Italy started the game well and before David Silva scored the first goal in the 14th minute, they actually looked almost equal to Spain, if not marginally better. Spain started with the now usual headless formation but their football was sharper, more attacking version of tiki-taka with an interesting mix of direct football. Jordi Alba’s brilliant strike in the 41st minute came from a brilliant Xavi Hernández through and by that time Italy was completely down and out. Spain added further assault when the substitute Torres scored in the 84th minute and finally Juan Mata, who came in as a substitute in the 87th minute, scored with his first touch. The final result 4-0 is an ample testimony of Spain’s supremacy in international football today.

The victory parade in Madrid after writing a new chapter in international football

The current Spain side shows that success indeed breeds success. Up until Euro 2008, they were tagged as the serial underachievers of international football. But with the golden generation of footballers and a strong belief in their brand of football, Spain became the second team to win three successive major tournaments after Argentina who had won the Copa America (then called the South American Championships) in 1945, 1946 and 1947. As Juan Mata put it succinctly, “There’s a real faith in the approach now; the legacy of victory is a confidence for the future too”.

What is even bad news for other footballing powerhouses worldwide is that the current Spanish team does not show any sign of slowing down. Barring Xavi, no one’s on the wrong side of 30 and we may well find the same bunch of players in the forthcoming World Cup 2014 in Brazil, unless they get replaced by even better ones – only to make them a more unbeatable lot. Although the possibility is not an overtly optimistic one, the Spanish supply line is in full throttle. Their Under-19 team just won the UEFA European championship barely a week ago.