No Carles Puyol, no David Villa – no problem…
In a European Championship long on drama but short on wow, Spain’s final emasculation of storied futbol powerhouse Italy extended a welcome exclamation point. But more importantly, Spain’s record-breaking third major international championship in a row did two over-arching things: (1) it put to rest the notion that La Furia Roja’s short, crisp and precise passing, quick, suffocating defense and intricate midfield-intensive possession game was so much more than it’s boring, negative reputation; and (2) it was a reverberating announcement to the rest of the world that the longest rule by any futbol side, club or national, would continue.
This was not the flashiest team to watch – ergo their reputation for being mundane and boring – and this clearly was not the team we’ve seen through the two previous editions that waltzed through the last European Championship and South Africa 2010, but this was the efficient, even-keeled team we’ve come to expect from a team headed by Vicente del Bosque. Not only has no team in European Championship history scored more goals, but no team has ever allowed fewer. In three major international tournaments across four years, La Furia Roja has not allowed a single score in any elimination game.
Stated simply, you can’t score on them; you can’t even get the ball from them. And what’s worse, not only do THEY know it, but so do their opponents.
Even in games in which Spain has scored one or no goals, they are so frustratingly suffocating as to be demoralizing. Need proof? Just ask Portugal.
If this is boring, then so be it, because Spain makes this work to perfection, and have created an international dynasty the likes of which nobody has ever seen in futbol. This may not be pleasing to watch, but neither was “Moneyball”, a way of playing baseball that received the same kind of negative response from insiders and observers yet in driving three teams to several world championships became the primary business paradigm of Major League Baseball. If the keepers of futbol are really paying attention, “tiki taka” futbol, as the Spanish style has come to be referred, should be the preferred paradigm worldwide for the next generation.
Spain’s label as classic and perennial under-achievers – a designation earned from having world-class talent and world-class ability to seriously challenge for international hardware yet figuring out some way of screwing it up for 44 years – has long since been put asunder. Their iron-fisted rule of international futbol for going on six years now makes their previous reputation seem like ancient history given their current master class the likes of which has never been seen.
Since being unceremoniously drop-kicked out of the 2006 World Cup, the national side that surly, intense former manager Luis Aragones and calm, laid-back current manager del Bosque have put together have simply been invincible. That’s because Aragones and del Bosque have instilled in Spain the one necessary trait that had been lacking those previous lost 4 decades: An undeniable believe in themselves and a refuse-to-lose quality.
It is quite clear that the whole that is La Furia Roja – though loaded with star-quality and world-class players – is greater than the sum of its part. Even without the aforementioned world-class players in Puyol and Villa, Spain managed to waltz through this tournament. Part of the reason they were labeled as boring and negative may be because they never gave the appearance of playing with any urgency – they always looked like they were just mailing it in. Such was the belief in themselves and confidence in their system: Lose Puyol and Villa? No problem. Just plug in Sergio Ramos and David Silva and soldier on.
The team everybody was expecting to meet Spain in the final, Germany, has now assumed the mantle of under-achievers. While having won international hardware more recently during Spain’s lost decades, in 5 of the last 6 international tournaments dating back to 2002 they’ve been expected to feast on international competition with their new wide attacking style that runs opponents to exhaustion. Yet every time Germany has gotten to the threshold of greatness they’ve been denied by some motivated upstart that chose that particular moment to play way above what was expected (Brazil in 2002, Italy in 2006, Spain in 2008 and 2010). This year was no different, with a German side hitting on all cylinders getting unceremoniously drop-kicked out of the tournament in the semis by an Italian side in disarray coming into the Euros yet finding some unknown form through 4 games.
So it was left to the Italians — with their quick-strike counterattack anchored by surging Andrea Pirlo and Mario Baloteli, and the past masters of the fabled lockdown defense known as catenaccio – to finally put an end to this boring football employed by the Iberians –
– Italy never stood a chance…
Spain clearly saved the best for last. Like a hawk picking apart a rat carcass, that La Furia Roja mechanically and methodically picked apart one of history’s three most powerful, successful and storied national sides so spectacularly and stunningly was nothing short of embarrassing.
In establishing what is clearly the longest running international dynasty, del Bosque set a record of his own. He became the first futbol manager to hit the trifecta: a club world championship (with Real Madrid), an international continental championship, and an international world championship. It’s about time we started mentioning del Bosque in the same rarefied air as Alex Fergusen, Alf Ramsey and Mario Zagalla.
Is Spain the best national side ever? This is a team loaded with star-quality and world-class players, what you expect historic national sides such as Brazil ’58-’62 (Pelè, Garrincha, Didi), Brazil ’68-’72 (Pelè, Jairzinho, Rivelino), Germany ’72-’76 (Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Mueller, Sepp Maier), Argentina ’78 and ’86 (Diego Maradona, Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella) and France ’98-’00 (Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Lillian Thuram) to have. But while Spain has enjoyed the longest continuous tenure of winning of any of the aforementioned national sides, the national sides that Spain has had to beat, while good in their own right, don’t rise to the quality of the opposition those other international dynasties had to face…
…But go to South America two years hence for the 2014 World Cup and defeat the purveyors of la joga bonita on their home soil in the hemisphere that no off-hemisphere side has ever won, then the case for Spain as the best ever would be sealed.