Euro Final Day: The Golden Age Of Spain

A much needed correction to a famous quote.  Apologies to Gary Lineker.  “Football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end the Germans Spanish win.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Reign of Spain maintained in the Ukraine.  Despite looking shaky at times and causing many to question their mettle and commitment (including *cough* yours truly), Spain won again and in imperious fashion.  This was not the 1-0 bludgeoning to which we have become accustomed.  This was a 4-0 humiliation, a breathtaking display, perhaps the finest of the tiki taka era.  Before tonight, the record in the Euro finals had been 3-0,* and that only happened once.  Not only did Spain completely smash Italy, but in becoming the first side ever to defend its European title, Spain is the first national team in the contemporary era to win three back-to-back major tournaments.**  Fernando Torres (remember him?) became the first person to score in two consecutive Euro finals, and Vicente Del Bosque is the first coach ever to win the World Cup, the Euro, and the Champions League.

No doubt that Pele will come out swinging very soon because already the pundits are debating whether Spain is the greatest national team ever.  This means that the great Brazil sides of 1958-62 and 1970 will be relegated.  Pele, being Pele, will not be able to deal with that (and probably the people of Brazil will not either).  Forget Brazilian football jingoism, Spain 2008-present is indeed the greatest national side ever by virtue of the fact that sport only moves forward; the players and teams of a later era are always better than those of an earlier era.  The newest generation stands on the shoulders of giants, sure, but they still see farther.  Whether or not Spain is greatest if all things are equal is a fruitless discussion.  All a great side can hope for is to enter the world’s collective memory.  That Spain have done.  Like the earlier Brazil sides, and like the other great national teams (successful or not) that have gone down into football folk-lore, Spain are not merely great champions, they represent the apogee of what football can be.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Before talking about the why of Spain, I want to discuss the when, where, and how that is required for better understanding.  Spain did not really become SPAIN until Jun 22, 2008 when it beat Italy on penalty kicks in the 2008 Euro quarterfinals.  Italy were historically the bogey team for Spain, a superstition with roots dating back to the late 1920’s.  In eliminating Italy, the Spaniards broke the curse and gained the confidence they needed to win the nation’s first major tournament since 1964.  Since 2008, Spain moved from strength to strength and have shed the underachiever label forever.  The roots of SPAIN go back two years earlier though to the 2006 World Cup.  (Actually, the roots go back years before to the planning and implementation of a brilliantly successful youth program, but 2006 was the watershed moment.)

In the 2006 World Cup, Spain were dumped out 3-1 in the first knockout round at the hands of a Zidane-inspired France.  It was a tough loss because of how amazingly Spanish dominated their group.  A few months later Spain began its qualification campaign for Euro 2008.  Despite beating Liechtenstein 4-0, Spain finished the year with consecutive losses to Northern Ireland and Sweden.  While perhaps the away loss to Sweden could be overlooked, the 3-2 defeat at the hands of that European powerhouse Northern Ireland was inexcusable (all the more so since Spain were leading 2-1 at one point).  That loss marked the beginning of a new era, most famously because it was the last time the Real Madrid legend Raul played for his country.  He was unceremoniously dumped and the new generation (spearheaded by Iker Casillas and Xavi) took over.

Qualification resumed in 2007 and since that time, in major tournaments (including qualifications) Spain have played 46 matches, won 43 of them, drew two, and lost one.  (A caveat: I consider the two matches won on penalty kicks as wins rather than draws, which is how FIFA classifies them.)  Spain have scored 101 goals against opponents and allowed a mere 20.  Spain have tied for the fewest number of goals allowed by a winning team at the World Cup (two) and have the sole record for fewest number of goals allowed at a Euro (one).  They are the first team ever to use the same starting XI in their opening match and the final of a Euro.  Casillas is the first person to reach 100 international victories.  The last two Golden Boot winners at the Euro are Spanish (David Villa in 2008 and Torres this year), as were the last two Players of the Tournament (Xavi in 2008 and Andrés Iniesta this year).  Spain also racked up all sorts of awards at the 2010 World Cup including the Golden Gloves (Casillas), the Silver Shoe, and the Bronze Ball (both Villa).  A host of Spanish players made the Teams of the Tournament at the World Cup (6), the 2008 Euro (9), and 2012 Euro (10).

And then there is Spain’s defensive record which is quite possibly the most incredible statistic of all.  In this tournament, Spain conceded a goal to Italy in its first match, and then went a record 509 minutes without conceding a second one.  In its last 10 knockout matches–dating back to that fateful June 22, 2008–Spain allowed opponents 0 goals.  This streak has lasted almost 1000 minutes, or about 16-and-a-half hours.  The last time Spain conceded a goal in a knockout round was its 2006 World Cup loss to France.  In that time, Spain have beaten the following nations at major tournaments (some twice): Italy, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Chile, Paraguay, Russia, France, Honduras, Sweden, Greece, and Croatia.  While neither Brazil nor Argentina feature, this is still a formidable line of opponents.  Spain are the lone European nation to have won a World Cup outside of Europe.  This Spain side have the record for most consecutive wins (15) and are tied with the 1993-95 Brazil side for longest undefeated streak (35 matches).

And almost all of their players will be available for 2014 World Cup–if they can keep their spots against the new generation who are also looking deadly formidable.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

None of this however explains the why of Spain.  Why is this generation of players so great?  For a quick comparison, look at the other young and talented squad of the current era, Germany.  Italy are the historically feared team for both Germany and Spain, but why were Spain able to eviscerate the Italians while Germany barely put up a fight?  Why is it that Spain have dominated the world, while Germany have become the eternal bridesmaid?

I am not sure I can answer for Germany, but I think I understand the Spanish revolution.  What it comes down to is that Spain as a footballing nation has developed tiki taka, which is shorthand for Spain’s own style, ethos, and philosophy about the game.  Spain’s play is instantly recognizable because no one else plays like them (or can play like them).  The cynic may say that so long as Spain keep winning so there is no reason for a stylistic change.  Yet this style has been infused at every level of national team development, and at almost every level Spanish players are successful.  Tiki taka has become as identified with Spain and Spanish football as Total Football has with the Netherlands.

Style is not the same as tactics.  With all due respect to Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox, I think that tactics only tell a small fraction of Spain’s story, and very little about Spain’s greatness.  Over and over at this tournament, Vicente Del Bosque was criticized for not using a center forward, using instead Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine” (Lionel Messi’s position for Barcelona).  In essence in this system, there is no striker, and the three attacking players (Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva) are really just a second set of midfielders.  In tactical shorthand, this is labeled as a 4-6-0.***  It was also heavily criticized by commentators and armchair tacticians until Spain tore Italy apart.

After the problems of the opening match against Italy, Del Bosque experimented a little, and eventually returned to the 4-6-0 opening formation.  Instead of eking out a draw, it provided the means for Spain’s utter domination.  Far more knowledgeable commentators than I can talk about the nuts and bolts of that tactics behind the 4-6-0 formation and what each player’s role was.  Those commentators can better describe the individual match-ups, such as the way Xavi kept Andrea Pirlo out of the match or how Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique neutralized Mario Balotelli.

But tactical minutiae do not get to the larger picture of why Spain could use the 4-6-0, and what being able to use that formation says about Spain.  The common wisdom is that defense wins tournaments.  One could certainly posit, by virtue of its series of 1-0 victories, that Spain is defense heavy.  Yet this is not a fair assessment.†  What the 4-6-0 really does is show how effectively Spain have undermined the common wisdom; defense doesn’t win tournaments, the midfield does.  The reason Spain scores are not higher is because every team that faces Spain sets up an extremely defensive system.  It is the implicit concession that no other side in the world can match Spain’s talent or ability.  When a team does not accept that and tries to play its own game against Spain, the results are disastrous.  Look no further than the Euro 2012 final; Italy, to its credit, played toe-to-toe with Spain.  Their efforts produced an entertaining match, and even an edge in possession at half time, but could not prevent a 4-0 drubbing.

Midfield players, especially Spanish midfield players, need two virtues to be successful: (1) they must be able to pass and control the ball well; and (2) they must have the intelligence and vision to make effective passes.  Midfielders can take on attacking duties or defensive ones.  When a team controls the midfield, it effectively controls the game.  This is the essence of tiki taka: “If I have the ball, I will probably score, and you will definitely not.”  The more midfielders a team has, the more players there are who are able to control and possess the ball (granted, at the expense of the traditional virtues of strikers and defenders).  Spain adapted this philosophy through Barcelona where it was originated by none other than Johan Cruyff.  Tiki taka is latest step in the evolution of Total Football.  Spain are what everyone wanted Holland to be.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The final against Italy may well be the apex of tiki taka football the way that Holland’s 4-0 victory over Argentina was the apogee of Total Football (or Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy was the pinnacle of its jogo bonito style).  Never has Spain come through in such a devastating way at such a big moment.  All four goals (and the passes leading to the goals) were beautiful, the first two astonishingly so.  Moreover, Spain’s goals were the essence of team goals.  They may have been scored by Silva, Alba, Torres, and Mata, but the creators were Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas.

For the past four years, Spain have dominated the international scene as no team has ever done before.  In Kiev, they ensured that they will become legendary.  Pele’s Brazil, Puskas’s Hungary, Cruyff’s Holland, Beckenbauer’s Germany–Xavi and Iniesta’s Spain are at the very forefront of the conversation.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Two quick notes before I sign off.

(1) If you have not been following the animated match reports from Tim Bradford of When Saturday Comes, get thee over to his YouTube page immediate.  They are wonderful.

(2)  Finally, given the television schedule and my work schedule, I am not sure how I will do with the football at the women’s Olympics, but I am really hoping to be able to write about that tournament as well.  Hopefully, I will see you then.

Footnotes:

*  In fact, in the three major international tournaments, the World Cup, the Euro, and the Copa America, there had never before been a four goal victory in a final match.  Even the great Brazil sides of 1958 and 1970 won by “only” three goals–5-2 over Sweden and 4-1 over Italy, respectively.  A caveat: the South American Championship did not become the Copa America until 1975.  Before that time it was a round robin tournament (as were the 1989 and 1991 editions of the Copa America and the 1950 World Cup), and therefore there was no actual final.

**  It is important to distinguish the “contemporary” era (i.e. post-World War II when worldwide tournaments began again after a hiatus) from the modern era.  The contemporary era began in 1950 with the resurrection of the World Cup and an uninterrupted cycle of regular football tournaments.  The modern era, i.e. when the game that we recognize as today’s global football game truly developed, began with the Uruguayan victory at the 1924 Olympics.  In the modern era, Spain is not the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments.  Argentina won three South American Championships in 1945, 46, and 47.  Earlier than that the great Italian side of the 1930’s won the 1934 and 38 World Cups as well as the 1936 Olympics (which were a major tournament back then) and for good measure the Central European Cup, which lasted from 1933-35.  Uruguay won the 1923 and 1924 South American Championships and the 1924 Olympics.

*** 4-6-0 is not a Spanish system per se.  In 2008, Luis Aragones used a 4-4-2.  At the World Cup the system was more like a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 (although it was rather fluid).  Even in Poland/Ukraine, Del Bosque, did briefly switch away from 4-6-0, but switched back after being dissatisfied with the result.  Del Bosque used a 4-6-0 because of David Villa’s unfortunate injury and absence and because Del Bosque had more faith in his midfielders than in his remaining strikers.

† Helenio Herrera, the innovative coach who refined and popularized the infamous catenaccio style of Inter Milan and Italy, lamented that a system he believed to be attacking (when correctly applied) had instead become shorthand for stifling defensiveness, grinding out matches, and cynical play.  While catenaccio is a tactical system and tiki taka is so much more, one can see the similarity in the perceptions and misconceptions about both.

Euro Day 15: Sacre Bleu!

In eliminating France, Spain broke its streak of consecutive 1-0 victories in knock out rounds.  Sort of.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0.  This is not binary code; it is the scores of Spain’s five previous knockout round matches in official tournaments (the Confederations Cup doesn’t count because it’s an exhibition with delusions of grandeur).  First came the Euro final of 2008, a 1-0 victory over Germany.  In the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup it was 1-0 over Portugal.  In the next round it was 1-0 over Paraguay.  Then it was 1-0 over Germany again.  And in the final round it was 1-0 over the Netherlands.

So when Spain went up 1-0 in the 19th minute of today’s Euro 2012 quarterfinal against France (a fabulous header from Xabi Alonso), it was lights out.  Spain would tiki and taka Les Bleus (who ironically wore an all white kit) to death without actually scoring another goal.  Ruthless but effective and who could blame them?  Perhaps if France were less lackluster they could have gathered themselves together to score a tying goal.  There were moments where France threatened, but in the end Spain’s possession game plan strangled them to death as it has done to so many others.  I think France managed exactly one shot on goal.

In second half stoppage time Pedro earned a penalty, which Xabi Alonso converted to make the final score  2-0.  Officially, Xabi Alonso’s penalty broke the 1-0 streak, but to anyone who watched the entire match it was effectively another 1-0 victory.  Coincidentally, this match was Xabi Alonso’s 100th cap.  Today’s goals were the only two he scored for Spain.  Ever.

Next up Portugal.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In winning today, Spain put yet another demon behind them.  Although Spain have an edge in the official head-to-head statistics, before tonight, Spain never beat France in an official tournament.  The last time they played one another officially was the 2006 World Cup, where a Raul-led Spain fell 3-1 to a Zidane-led France (happy birthday, Zizou).  At the time the match had no symbolic significance, but in hindsight it marked a turning point in the fate of both national teams.

Following the 2006 World Cup, Spanish coach Luis Aragones dropped Raul and led his team to an impressive 2008 Euro victory–the first tournament victory since the 1964 Euro (a much different tournament back then).  That was the moment Spain stopped being a jinxed team, the sick man of Europe, and became everyone’s favorite world beaters.  Unlike almost everyone else, Spain actually played with a national style.  Moreover, that style was difficult to play, distinct (and lovely) to watch, and easy to recognize–a football wonk’s dream.  The 3-0 annihilation of Russia in the Euro 2008 semifinals was particularly eye-opening.

Aragones, sick of the politics of the Spanish football association and the Spanish sports media, kept a pre-tournament vow to quit following the tournament, and he was replaced by former Real Madrid boss Vicente del Bosque.  Del Bosque had the pedigree; he had coached Real Madrid to a Champions League victory.  There was fear he might bring back Raul, who generally considered a team cancer, but del Bosque decided to make only very minor tinkers (such as famously dropping Marco Senna and bringing in more Barcelona players).

Spain won every match in its 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, and (after ironically losing its first match to Switzerland 1-0), Spain 1-0’ed its way to victory.  En route however, Spain stopped being everyone’s darling and started to be perceived as a second Germany–ruthlessly efficient and dreadfully dull.  Or at least this is the perception of the British media (and the American media which parrots the British).  If anyone else out there speaks a different language, please let me know how Spain’s dominance is perceived in your country. What the media overlooked though is that Spain “ground out” 1-0 victories because all their opponents parked the bus.  We tremble with dread when we think of Greece’s 2004 victory at the Euro, but Spain essentially faced those same Greek tactics over and over again in each round.  That Spain kept winning is truly a credit to their talent and their patience.

It makes sense that the British would come to despise the Spanish game, because Spain are the opposite of England (and to a lesser extent Scotland, but really when we talk about Britain we mean England): technical rather than physical, patient rather than daring. strategic rather than foolhardy.  Spain like the short-passes and keeping play on the ground, England prefer the long kick and run and the cross and the header.  And most importantly, Spain have completely changed its image from losers to world beaters, whereas finding excuses for losing has become a national hobby in England.

Therefore it is no surprise to hear the English gripe about boring, boring Spain.  But if the English National Team won a Euro, and World Cup and was now in the semifinals of the next Euro using tiki taka, you can bet that no one would think it was boring at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In contrast to Spain’s upward trajectory, France have gone from disgrace to disgrace.  The warning signs were all there in 2006; had it not been for Zidane effectively taking charge of the team and through sheer will dragging it to the finals, France would have exited in disgrace at the group stages rather than losing in the final round in penalty kicks–a loss that may have been prevented had Zidane not vicariously fulfilled the dreams of everyone else in the world by headbutting an Italian footballer.  Once Zidane was exiled to the dressing room, decisions were left solely to coach Raymond Domenech, a man who was completely unqualified to coach a high school team.  Hence the French lost on penalty kicks to a national team whose penalty kicks record ranks only slightly better than England’s.

Following the World Cup, the French football association kept Domenech on even though it was widely known that the team despised him.  (Granted, firing a coach who takes your team to second place makes no sense unless you are Brazil.)  The federation would however, have had every right to fire Domenech two years later after France’s miserable showing at Euro 2008.  Domenech was retained despite the poor showing and despite some very strange behavior that bordered on lunacy.  The federation put him on “probation” for the World Cup qualifiers.  Not to toot my own horn, but when the federation’s then-president stood by Domenech, I told anyone who would listen that this was a horrific mistake that would eventually cause said president to resign after the World Cup.  I was right, but I had no idea about how right I was.

By now everyone knows the story.  France did not win their World Cup qualification group, and only qualified for South Africa because of a Hand of Thierry goal against Ireland in the play-offs.  Almost everyone knows about the strike in South Africa, but if not, the story of the French team’s behavior is told briefly and succinctly here.  It was horrifying and hilarious at the same time.  Again, France failed to make it out of the group stage (they finished dead last and were quite possibly the worst team at the tournament with only North Korea for competition), but the team behavior overshadowed the miserable performance.  It cause un scandale at home.  The president resigned, Domenech was (finally) sacked, and the players were disciplined to varying degrees.  Nicolas Anelka was effectively banned for life.  Sarkozy  himself threatened to get involved, but recanted when FIFA threatened sanctions.

Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc replaced Domenech and it looked like he finally started to get the team in order.  They went on a 23 match unbeaten streak and began to look like contenders (although Blanc had his doubters, and the early days of his reign were, to say the least, not smooth).  At the this year’s Euro, France was drawn into a fairly easy group, with only England as potential competition.  Despite a draw with England, France seemed on pace to win Group D and avoid Spain in the quarterfinals.  Then France lost badly to Sweden who lost its previous two matches, and again all hell broke loose.  The details are sketchy, but there was some sort of problem or problems in the French dressing room following the Sweden loss.  Given that and Blanc’s generally defeatist attitude about the match against Spain, it is a wonder that the score was only 2-0.

Since 2006, one could say that France have effectively turned into the Dutch in that their internal squabbles derail their ambitions.  On the hand, the Oranje have never humiliated themselves quite to the extent that Les Bleus have.  (The Dutch tendency to fight comes from a tradition of independent thinking inherent in the Dutch culture at large.  France do not that excuse.  Rather it appears without a strong leader like Platini or Zidane, the French team’s natural inclination is to hate each other.)  Given that both France and the Netherlands have had disastrous showings at this Euro, both on and off the pitch, one can say there is very little difference between the team of Holland and the team of Hollande.

It is probably fair to say that the dream of 1998 is effectively dead, killed by poor stewardship and team disharmony.  Perhaps France can turn their fortunes around for 2014 in Brazil, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Blanc’s tenure looks far less secure, but they did keep on Raymond Demenech….

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

On a completely unrelated note, following today’s match, ESPN aired a special about Title IX and its impact on American women’s sports, particularly football, and with particularly emphasis on the 1999 Women’s World Cup (recycling much footage from the years-old documentary about that World Cup).

To my mind, this half hour encapsulates everything that is wrong with women’s football in America–as the world moves forward, Americans keep reflecting on a moment that has long since passed.  Last year the American women’s team repeated over and over again that they were sick of living in the shadow of the 1999 team, and who can blame them?  The 1999 victory has become so legendary that it will forever overshadow any future accomplishment of any other American women’s football team.  The fact that ESPN and the American football establishment continue to worship 1999 covers up some major problems: (1) the rest of the world has caught up to the US, but any serious conversation is swept aside for nostalgia; (2) the US is in danger of creative emptiness, and that needs to be corrected; and (3) the 1999 success cannot disguise the fact that now two women’s professional football leagues in this country have failed.  A successful tournament is one thing, sustained growth is something completely different.

And for all the good Title IX has done, the question must be asked: is the collegiate system really the best way going forward to sustain a successful national program?  It is not in the men’s game, and I suspect that one day it will be the same in the women’s game.  Perhaps it is time to move beyond Title IX as the fountainhead of all women’s football and to start thinking about alternatives.  Nostalgia has its place, but not at the cost of the future.

I have no objections to remembering and celebrating the good times, but I am really tired of the 1999 fetish, particularly the focus on Mia, Brandi, Kristine, and Julie (especially Mia).  The truth is that the greatest American football hero, woman or man, is consistently and completely overlooked: Michelle Akers.  She is our national legend, our Pele.  Perhaps it is time for ESPN to show her a little love rather than just retread the well-worn ground of the 1999 World Cup.

Euro Day 3: All Tik And No Tak

I have a math equation for all you football fans.  Spain = Barcelona – Lionel Messi + red shirts.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Day 3 of the 2012 Euro showcased what is arguably the highlight match of the first round: Italy v. Spain.  It was this match-up four years ago in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Euro that propelled Spanish football to its current Golden Age.  After Spain’s youngsters beat Italy in penalty kicks, they massacred Russia in the semifinals and dominated Germany to win the nation’s first international title since the 1964 Euro (this excludes all youth tournaments and the 1992 Olympics which is not a major tournament in men’s football).  Following 2008 win, Spain, exuding confidence from every pore and terrifying opponents into submission, won every match in World Cup qualifiers, broke or tied records for win streaks and unbeaten streaks–streaks broken by the USA in the Confederations Cup semifinals–and promptly lost to Switzerland in the first round of the 2010 World Cup.

Of course Spain went on to win the World Cup, but in the Switzerland match something changed.  Tiki taka football, once the darling of the cognoscenti, started to look stale and boring as Spain ground out a series of 1-0 wins en route to the title.  Suddenly, many of the same people who once toasted Spain (and Barcelona) complained about how boring their dominating style was.  Spain and Barcelona though are not a fair comparison, because while the two teams played the same style and shared many of the same players, the Spanish lacked something, a scoring threat.  The difference of course is that Spain does not have Lionel Messi, and to a lesser extent Dani Alves running down the wing.  (Messi, for his part, scored a hat trick last night for Argentina in a 4-3 victory against hated rival Brazil–quite possibly the first player to do that to the Brazilians since Paolo Rossi in 1982.)

All styles of play and all great teams eventually end.  No Golden Age lasts forever.  Whether or not this tournament marks the end of the Reign in Spain remains to be seen, but the national team’s tiki taka was already on the wane in 2010 when Switzerland, Portugal, Paraguay, and especially the Netherlands, figured out that the way to stop Spain from scoring (if not winning) was to play organized defenses and rough the Spaniards up.  Without a Messi to terrify opposing defenses, tiki taka lacks its killer edge.  That has been Spain’s problem, all the more so since the injury to David Villa and the vanished confidence of Fernando Torres.  Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets are all great and intelligent players, but they are midfielders, and when things get tight, they prefer to pass rather than shoot.  Or, in a tortured analogy, they unlock the door but cannot walk through it.  Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque must share some of the blame.  He has a quality forward at his disposal, Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, but instead he chose to start instead a midfield sextet rather than use an actual forward–a fact that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman could not stop talking about during the match.

None of this of course tells you the score of the match, which was actually a 1-1 draw.  To Spain’s credit, when Italy went up 1-0, Fabregas scored four minutes later.  They held their nerve and got better.  But watching the match, I got the feeling that given Spain’s difficulties in scoring and the departure of Guardiola from Barcelona, the sun has finally set on the era of tiki taka.

There are other reasons why Spain merely drew, and the top one of those is the good play of Italy.  Italy is the most maddening national team in world football.  They come from the land of Michelangelo and Verdi but their play reminds you that they also come from the land of Silvio Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra.  Whenever one complains about their cheap fouling and diving, the Azzurri faithful complain about the critic being “anti-Italian.”  Add whining fans and players to the list of things to hate about the Italian National Team.

By all rights, Italy should be done and dusted as a footballing nation.  Yet again, their national league has fallen to scandal (is it coincidence that this happened the same year Juventus finally won the league again?).  Their economy is falling apart (like Spain’s, I might add), and their political system is so broken that the European Union (i.e. Germany) had to replace their dysfunctional but elected government with one that might actually govern.  Ironically, when the nation is in crisis, Italy is at its footballing best, and the Azzurri win tournaments–most famously the World Cups of 1982 and 2006.  Equally aggravating is that Italy play at its best when it faces top teams.  This is why Italy are the bogeyman of both Spain and Germany; neither of those national teams have ever been able to actually beat Italy.  Even Spain’s 2008 win was officially a draw as the victory came as a result of a penalty shoot-out.

Spain were a pre-tournament favorite, Spain has dominated the world, Italy is in crisis, Italy exited the World Cup in ignominious fashion.  Yet today Italy played the better game.  Somehow Spain still managed to eke out a draw.  Perhaps that is progress, or perhaps the era of tiki taka has come full circle and ended where it began–with a draw to Italy.

~*~*~*~*~*~

In other Group C news, Croatia beat Ireland, the whipping boys of the Group.  I was not able to watch the match.  The problem with working during the week is that during the weekend, I have to make sure that all the chores are done.  While I could reasonably get away with watching Spain v. Italy, Croatia v. Ireland just did not have the same urgency.  Till next weekend.

Spanish Fly

When I first started following football, the English Premier League was on top the world.  Most of the best players played in the EPL, and English clubs dominated the Champions League.  Three of the four would regularly appears in the Champions League semifinals.  This culminated in the 2008 Moscow final when Manchester United beat Chelsea.

That final, it turned out, was the beginning of the end for EPL dominance.  In hindsight the change came a couple of months later when a Xavi-led (and Raul-less) Spain won the 2008 Euro in spectacular fashion.  Around the same time, Barcelona’s coach Frank Rijkaard was sacked.  This ushered in the Pep Guardiola era, and the rest is history.

As Barcelona won trophies at an unprecedented rate, its eternal enemy Real Madrid got very jealous and scared and did what it always does when faced with a problem: throw money at it.  Madrid acquired arguably the best player in Italy (Kaka) and the best player in England (Cristiano Ronaldo) and when buying expensive players wasn’t enough, Madrid got the man who the media claim is the best coach in the world (Jose Mourinho).  Barcelona for their part doubled down on their Cruyffian philosophy and put more energy into the youth academy system with the occasional purchase, both good (e.g., Sanchez, Fabregas, Villa) and bad (e.g., Ibrahimovic, Chygrynskiy, Hleb).

As the arms race between Barcelona and Madrid escalates to an almost nuclear level, it is unquestionable that the best two teams in the world are in Spain (save for the occasional “Tuesday night in Stoke” comment, the other remark that Andy Gray will never live down).  In denial fans of the EPL tried a new tactic to prove how superior their league is.  It goes something like this, “Well maybe there are two great teams in Spain, but the rest are lousy, so it’s really just the Scottish league on steroids, and therefore boring.”  Even people who should have known better (I’m looking at you, Sid Lowe), repeated this fiction as though it were gospel.

As it turns out, this year’s two European competitions have completely undercut this argument.  Yes, Barcelona and Madrid are still the best of the best, but it turns out that the rest of Spain isn’t all that bad either.  Advancing to the semifinals of the Europa League today were Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Athletic Bilbao.  The latter club beat up on Manchester United in the last round in thrilling, Barcelona-esque fashion.  Who knew that Athletic could do that?  Certainly not the English.

So to recap, in this year’s two European competition, five of the eight remaining clubs are Spanish, the top four players in the world play in Spain, eight of the top 20 players in the world play for Barcelona, the defending Champions League and World Club Cup champion is from Spain, the Euro and World Cup champion is Spain, Spain is the top ranked nation in the FIFA rankings, and very shortly it will be the top ranked national league according to the UEFA coefficient.

Maybe Barcelona and Madrid rule the roost, but right now the also-rans in Spain are superior to the best of everywhere else.

Spain U21’s Win Europe

I admit that I have done a poor job of posting about the 2011 UEFA U21 European Championship, but life is short, and I can only cover so many tournaments.  I have chosen the Gold Cup, the Women’s World Cup and the Copa America (tournaments that actually count for something beyond grooming talent.)  Nevertheless, I cannot let the U21 Euro pass by completely without comment.

Spain beat Switzerland 2-0, avenging (I guess) the senior side’s loss to Switzerland at the World Cup, which, it turns out, only galvanized the Spanish.  Spain is now the World, European, and U21 European Champion, the first time any nation has ever held all three titles simultaneously.  True to form, U-21 Spain tiki-taka‘ed their way to the title.  Granted this side starred two World Cup winning players (Javi Martinez and Juan Mata), but the new generation is proving to be just as dominant as the current one, and that should alarm the rest of the world.  What’s more, this side has proved that when their game plan of possession football doesn’t work, they could adapt, which is downright terrifying.

In 2008, Spain permanently threw off its label as the Sick Man of Europe (at least in football terms) and since the World Cup has opted instead to embrace another stereotype: The Conquistador.  One hopes that the reign of Spain that stays mainly on the terrain produces the warm memories that Brazil did in its 1958-70 heyday.

(And to think in 2008 I thought Holland was going to win the European Championship and Marco van Basten was a genius.  Clearly, I knew nothing.)

Barcelona Tactics

I discovered a fantastic video about Barcelona’s tactics.  Some of these I described earlier, but I am not nearly the astute follower that the creator of this video is (although there is some stuff missing, particularly about how Guardiola drills his players to see the pitch as 8 squares and each square must be filled at all times.)  But it also shows that for all the plaudits Messi (deservedly) gets, the goals and the wins are truly a team effort.

Taking the content of this video as a whole, this goes back to something that I have been saying for quite some time, the style that Barcelona plays is more than just a series of tactics.  Rather, tiki-taka is an entire philosophy, a completely unique way to see and play the game, just as Total Football was.  Spain’s victory at the World Cup was in a way a redemption of the Holland team of 1974.  Barcelona : Spain 2010 – Ajax : Holland 1974.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe is kind.

Barcelona And The Inadequacy Of Praise

I have not completely come down from my high of last week.  Barcelona won the Champions League, and they won it their way.  Pass-pass-pass-score.   Beautiful and exciting football, possession and pressing, no drama, just dominance.  Like in Rome two years, Manchester United dominated the first ten minutes, taking advantage of nerves and a slow start from Barcelona.  Also like in Rome, after ten minutes it was almost all Blaugrana.

There is no question that this Barcelona side is special, easily the greatest side since the Milan of the late 80’s early 90’s.  They are arguably better.  There is no doubt however, that this Barça side has joined the pantheon of great clubs sides.

Future generations will recite the names of the Barcelona starting XI: Valdes-Alves-Pique-Puyol-Abidal-Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta-Pedro-Messi-Villa.  Pep Guardiola has locked up the manager of the year award, and it is virtually certain that Messi will win his third straight player of the year award, thereby tying Platini, Cruyff, and van Basten.  (Some with a sense of irony might say that the award should go to Wesley Sneijder.)  Individual awards are silly though and meaningless.  Football is a team sport, and no club represents this more than Barcelona.  Barcelona would not be the team it is now if not for Messi, but Messi does not do it alone.  If he has achieved immortality, it is because he stands on the shoulders of (tiny) giants.

During the first ten nerve-wracking minutes, I sat hoping against hope that this match would be a repeat of Rome.  Sure enough, my wish came true.  I remember exactly when the momentum changed, and it was well before Pedro’s goal.  Barcelona began stringing passes together, weakly at first, and then stronger.  To absolutely no one I started saying “Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.”  The beats of a metronome, the precision of a Swiss watch, the gears of the machine running smoothly.  That is how reporters, pundits and commentators describe Barcelona’s greatness: machine-like.  Calling Barcelona a machine is too easy, and it’s dead wrong.

When confronted with beauty in football, I find that my own words are woefully inadequate.  I turn to Football in Sun and Shadow, and let Eduardo Galeano eloquently say what I cannot.  When writing about the famed River Plate side of the 1940’s, also called “The Machine,” Galeano said:

People called that legendary team “The Machine” because of its precision plays.  Dubious praise: these strikers had so much fun playing they’d forget to shoot at the goal.  They had nothing in common with the mechanical coldness of a machine.  Fans were fairer when they called them the “Knights of Anguish” because those bastards made their devotees sweat bullets before allowing them the relief of a goal.

This description of a side that played nearly seven decades ago also suits the Barcelona of today.  Barcelona have revived the flair of the old Argentinian style via Ajax and Holland.  Johan Cruyff, the link between Barcelona’s tiki-taka and Total Football, once said, “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”  (Or something like that.  I have seen many variations of that quote.)  Barcelona is the  proof of just how difficult simple football really is.

At its root, football is a game of running, passing, and shooting.  Tactics and formations are additions that have built up and evolved over time.  What works better, a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2, etc?  Additionally, in the age of the super clubs and expansive squads, a starting lineup can be different in every match.  Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, changes his XI and his tactics to fit the opponent.  Against weaker opponents, Manchester United may attack more, but against a more offensively minded team such as Arsenal, United might depend on the counterattack.

Except in the cases of injuries, suspensions, and meaningless matches, Barcelona uses the same starting XI.  Regardless of the on-field personnel, Barcelona never changes its style of play.  Barcelona’s philosophy (when was the last time football had a philosophy?) is based on a very simple premise: if I have the ball, you cannot score.  Putting that philosophy into action though is extremely difficult no matter how easy Barcelona make it look (just ask Arsenal.)  If possession is everything, players need to be constantly aware of their teammates positions.  Passing must be more than accurate; it must be precise.  And when the ball is inevitably lost players must be able to play an intense press to get it back.  Therefore the entire team must (a) be in peak physical condition, (b) be skilled, and (c) have a good football brain.

Although most renown for its attacking capabilities, tiki-taka is actually as defensive a style as the dreaded catenaccioFor example, at the World Cup Spain conceded two goals throughout the entire tournament and none during the knock-out stages.  Nevertheless, Spain in the knock-out round Spain won each match 1-0, the complete opposite of tiki-taka‘s popular image.  For the most part, the personnel was almost entire the same, as the majority of the starting XI was from Barcelona, and the Spanish side played remarkably well.  The was one significant difference in personnel between Spain and Barcelona, but it was a crucial one.  Messi is the uncontrollable element that opposing teams fear.  When opposing defenses park the bus, Messi tears them open.  Therefore Spain had to eke out a series of 1-0 victories, a stat that unfairly maligns the World Cup victory, but underscores the defensive prowess of tiki-taka.

What makes tiki taka such a successful attacking philosophy at Barcelona is that (1) the front line (Messi in particular) is so adept at scoring and (2) the attack can come from anyone.  They players are so good at scoring that their defensive work is largely neglected.  Until the very final weeks of the 2010-2011 La Liga season, Barcelona led the scoring charts.  The Blaugrana let up at the end after the title was all but assured, and Madrid beat up on hapless teams whose fates were already decided (and Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to win the La Liga and European scoring titles.)  In the end, Madrid scored 102 goals to Barcelona’s 95. (In all competitions though, Barcelona scored more goals.)

Goals scored does not the real story however.  The goals allowed and the goal differential show exactly how dominant Barcelona was this year.  For the entire 38 match season, La Liga opponents scored a mere 21 goals against Barcelona, or just over half a goal per match.  Therefore, Barcelona’s goal differential was a ridiculous +74.  Compare that number to Real Madrid (33 allowed for a differential of +69), or the other league winners in the top European nations: Manchester United (37 allowed for a differential of +41), AC Milan (24 allowed for a differential of +41), Lille (36 allowed for a differential of +32), and Borussia Dortmund (22 in 34 matches for a differential of +45).

It should not be surprising that Barcelona has such an incredible goal differential; Barcelona’s offense and defense are one and the same.  To distinguish offense and defense is to misunderstand tiki-taka.  As I wrote above, possession is not merely a way of getting to the opponent’s goal, it is the primary method of defense.  Pressing is not just a way to pressure an opponent, but also a way to restart the attack.  Messi, Pedro, and David Villa are therefore the first line of defense while the attack originates with Valdes, Puyol, and Pique (to say nothing of the attacking fullback.)  The Catalans chant with pride, “Even our keeper plays the Barça way!

Tiki-taka is the logical next step in the evolution of Total Football, a philosophy that, in its 1970’s incarnation, could not combat the modern defense.  In Total Football, players alternated positions depending on who could do the most damage where.  It was a system tailor-made for Cruyff.  Tiki-taka employs fixed positions but each role is a crucial part of both the offense and the defense.  That is why in both Champions League finals against United, Barcelona was able to play defensive midfielders as makeshift center backs (Yaya Touré in 2009, Javier Mascherano in 2011) without any repercussions.

Since the rise of this Barcelona squad, Barcelona’s youth academy has attracted a fair share of media attention, and deservedly so.  Of the usual starting XI, La Masia produced eight: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Messi.  This is unusual for any club especially for one of the world’s biggest.  Yet, if you look at the list, La Masia has produced not just some of the world’s greatest active players, but also some of the greatest ever.  Even Ajax in the 1970’s did not have so many starters from its youth system.  Ajax now probably doesn’t either, and the Ajax Academy is the model for La Masia.

The youth system is the stumbling block for the Barcelona wannabes.  Even the great Barcelona teams were never this good, not the team of the late 50’s/early 60’s, not the Dream Team, and not the team from five years ago that featured Ronaldinho in his glory.  If Barcelona has never before reached this heights, what chance is there for imitators who do not have the youth system?  Tiki-taka (like Total Football) is too complicated a philosophy to be picked up easily in training.  It is rare to find a player who fits in easily.   Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, and David Villa are the only starters to came from outside La Masia.

That is what makes Barcelona great.  The Blaugrana have taken football to a new level.  Hopefully it will last a while, because great teams–truly great teams–do not come around often.