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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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