Putting its best foot forward

With an unprecedented three consecutive major titles, Spain has created its own legacy in football. A bequest that has already surpassed Puskas’ Magical Magyars, Beckenbauer’s Germany and perhaps even Pele’s Brazil, writes Ayon Sengupta.

The Spanish Renaissance (1492) left behind a legacy of finest craftsmanship that is still visible in every nook and corner of Spain today. The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial or Palace of Charles V stands resolute, bearing testimony to the nation’s glorious past, which inspired a generation of Spanish artists, who followed in the footsteps of the Renaissance men.

The Spanish footballers, like the Renaissance men, have been late to rise. La Roja always underachieved as Germany, Italy and France walked away with the honours.

However, the Spanish Class of 2008 (we call it so because it was in EURO 2008, in Switzerland-Austria, where Spain’s ascent began) has graduated with distinction, but it still refuses to leave the academic circles, earning one degree after another. With an unprecedented three consecutive major titles, Spain has created its own legacy in football. A bequest that has already surpassed Puskas’ Magical Magyars, Beckenbauer’s Germany and perhaps even Pele’s Brazil.

In EURO 2012, the Spaniards, playing a predominantly horizontal ping-pong game rather than the conventional push-forward style, weren’t the crowd favourites. On the other hand, Germany looked breathtakingly fresh and direct before its debacle in the semifinals, while Italy was imaginative and adaptive until its false finale.

Spain was clinical yet monotonous, tiring the eyes as much as the opposition. But in the end, it did manage to win the fence-sitters and detractors over. By comprehensively disassembling a determined and fashionable Italian side 4-0 in front of a boisterous crowd at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Spain made history, adding the EURO 2012 title to its already impressive collection of World Cup 2010 and EURO 2008 crowns.

This definitely should shut the worrywart up; answer every question about the Spanish legacy. The Spaniards are no marauders or plunderers but practitioners of a fine art who have made football beautiful again and taught the world to love the ball.

Coach Vincent del Bosque understands the philosophy and knows his wards well. “We’re talking about a great generation of players. They have roots in soccer,” he says. “They play the game the way the game is meant to be played.”

The team, drawn heavily from Barcelona’s very, if not the most, successful side (apart from Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas in his starting XI, del Bosque had Victor Valdes and Pedro on the bench, while Carles Puyol and David Villa, both first-choice, were ruled out of the tournament with injuries) threw aside conventional notion and played without an orthodox centre forward in a headless 4-6-0 system. Playing without a defined striker remains a relatively novel and courageous concept and Spain became the first team to win the European Championship by using the same XI in its opening game and the final, hardly rotating its personnel throughout the tournament.

The noticeable Barcelona connection should not be brushed aside. “This side are like (Santos) were in my heyday: the standard setters of the moment. Barca provide the spine of the Spanish national team,” Pele says. “There’s a direct connection between Barca’s success and that of the Spanish team — just as there was between Ajax and the Dutch national team in the past, and between Santos and Brazil.”

Like today’s Spain, the 1962 World Cup-winning Brazil side had a clutch of Santos players such as Pele, O Rei, Zito and the quartet of Gilmar, Mauro, Mengalvio and Coutinho. In Europe, the Netherlands reached the 1974 World Cup final with several Ajax players (including the legendary Johan Cruyff) in its ranks. The Oranje lost the 1974 decider to Mannschaft, hugely drawn from the Bayern Munich squad that succeeded Ajax as the European champion in 1974, 1975 and 1976, and provided the national side with players like Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner, Uli Hoeness, Sepp Maier and Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that three of the best teams of EURO 2012 drew players largely from single club sides. Germany reached the semifinals with no fewer than seven Bayern players regularly in its line-up; Italy had six from the current Serie A champion, Juventus.

Barcelona’s La Masia revolution has definitely helped Spain, but first Luis Aragones in 2008 and del Bosque since then have intelligently and practically been able to mix Barca’s dream sequences with Real Madrid’s naked, ambitious pragmatism. With vast print spaces devoted to the apparent breakdown of trust between the players of the two rival clubs after a very fractious Spanish season, a title seemed impossible. But Spain and its players, to their credit, looked to have left that behind and from day one of the competition were eager to achieve this remarkable sporting success that has brought relief to a country where one in four is out of a job and whose economy has almost collapsed.

Spain, which enjoyed “sterile domination” over teams across the competition, put its best foot forward in the final. (Spain completed 3915 passes in its six games — 80% pass completion rate — compared to Italy’s 2913. It scored 12 goals and conceded one giving the team best offensive and defensive record of the tournament.) Scoring four past a very capable Italy and winning the final with complete authority puts Spain in an elevated plinth.

At the Olympic Stadium, Spain had the lead inside the first quarter and never thought about surrendering it. In its ‘headless’ formation there was no fixed play but a series of combinations that caused unpredictability and chaos in opposition. The Spaniards did not wait but arrived in the spaces from nowhere. Fabregas, masquerading as a false No. 9, drifted wide from his advanced position as Iniesta and David Silva cut inside regularly from the left and right, respectively.

Italy fought tooth and nail (remarkably going toe-to-toe with The Reds in possession) but the assembled class was breathtaking and even the great Andrea Pirlo had no answers. The narrow Italian diamond midfield offered width to the Spanish wing backs, and Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeola ran relentlessly, pushing back their Italian counterparts.

Xavi played ahead of Xabi Alonso and Busquets in the central midfield and nullified Pirlo’s threat to a large extent before moving further up to add weight to the Spanish attacks. It was all but over at the end of the first half.

The loss of ball-winning midfielder Thiago Mota, who was stretchered out with a hamstring pull only after four minutes on the pitch, leaving the Azzuri with 10 men for the remainder of the game, was cruel. Substitutes Fernando Torres, Pedro and Juan Mata brought in more pace and the visibly shaken and tired Italians had given up on hopes of a miracle and prayed for the merciful final whistle. Spain was not ready to oblige.

Italy, no ordinary side, was rumpled. The final was the defining game for Spain and chroniclers in the years to come will find no adequate lexis to fittingly illustrate its mastery and artistry on that spectacular Kiev night. Nevertheless, generations will remember the team, and the win will inspire many to fall in line and follow the ‘tiki-taka’ way.

VIVA ESPANA!

* The four-goal winning margin was the biggest in a European Championship or a World Cup final.

* Vicente del Bosque is only the second coach to win a European Championship and a World Cup, joining Helmut Schoen, who led West Germany to victory at the 1972 European Championship and the World Cup two years later.

* The victory was Spain’s first outright win over Italy in eight major tournament matches (Spain won a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw in EURO 2008 quarterfinals).

* Spain striker Fernando Torres is the first player to score in two European Championship finals.

* Torres also won the EURO 2012 Golden Boot for top scorer, by virtue of also having an assist and having played fewer minutes than Germany’s Mario Gomez.

* Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas is only the second player after Franz Beckenbauer (1972-1976) to captain his country in three major championship finals — two EUROs and a World Cup.