Monday, June 30, 2008

All hail the reign of the beautiful Spain

All hail the reign of the beautiful Spain.
So dreams can come true. Even Spanish footballing ones. And they can even come true in a wondrous way.

The Cava is still flowing and rightly so. In winning Euro 2008, Spain ended a quest for silverware that at 44 years' length, two more than England's, had defied all sense of fairness or logic.

But that they laid their hoodoo to rest in such style makes them the toast of the soccer world. Not since the Netherlands in the World Cup of 1974, or the Hungarians in 1954, has a nation playing such dazzling football reached the final of a major tournament. Unlike Cruyff's and Puskas' teams however, the Spanish vaulted the Germans at the last hurdle. The heart has beaten the head at last and the Beautiful Game is new again.

Their 1-0 win was not as delightful as their earlier victories in the Alps, but there was still enough of their mesmerizing passing and movement to leave nobody in any doubt that in more ways than one, the best team of the tournament had triumphed.

Germany suffered from Michael Ballack's woes; having missed Saturday training, he took a bloody wound to the eye and got himself booked in a frustrating first 45. Then Philipp Lahm, another key player, fatally hesitated to let Fernando Torres score before leaving the side at half time. In the second half, the Germans looked oddly jaded and unable to test Iker Casillas in Spain's goal, but even had fortune been on their side, you suspect the Spanish would still have been too strong for them.

This was indeed a victory for football, if we believe the game at its best is about aesthetics and not just winning. The soccer world had believed for so long that strength, hard work and organisation were the keys to victory, that we had forgotten about the entertaining by-product the fans so adore.

Flair players are have been considered liabilities in the quest for results, so set against this background, Spain’s win comes as an refreshing counterblast to the prevailing consensus.

Watching them labour to a 1-0 win over the USA in Santander on the eve of the competition, I saw enough of a midfield loaded with attacking talent to know they would be a force at the finals, and I tipped a team from the Iberian Peninsula to win, though I still felt a fit and on-song Germany could edge them thanks to their superior big-game mentality.

I was wrong – Spain had that inner steel to balance their twinkle toes. Confidence, that most powerful yet elusive weapon a team can posess, stayed with them until the end. Where the Netherlands, the other truly impressive team from the first round failed, the Spanish succeeded. Their self-belief saw off the challenge of the impressive Russians, devastatingly so (3-0) in the semi-final, before their prowess prevailed once more when Vienna called.

A final is like a second home to a German Mannschaft, while for Spain it has remained terra incognita since General Franco was in power. But last night in the Prater, the conquistadors of fútbol sailed crossed their ocean of doubt to plant their flag in the winners' enclosure. It is, one hopes, a new era for European football, a lasting challenge to the German-Italian axis which has scooped so many trophies, and an encouragement to coaches worldwide to teach a beautiful style of play to win.

Not that Spain set out to entertain, but their end-product was both victorious and dramatic. Dancing to a flamenco rhythm, their ball-to-feet midfield quickly became a joy to behold. Elvish little terriers like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva mastered the ball like virtuoso musicians, whipping it around with flair and a panache not seen in an international team for years.

That the country which contains club giants Barcelona and Real Madrid could apparently not produce a winning national team in almost half a century remains hard to explain.

Repeated exits from World Cups and European Championships left us so hoarse from repeating the old maxim that sooner or later it had to be Spain's year, most of us had given up tipping a nation which seemed immune from success.

The return of silverware to their FA leaves England, with its last trophy in 1966 as Europe's most under-achieving soccer nation, a depressing albatross of a boast for the game's motherland.

In his masterful book 'Morbo', the first English-language dissection of the game in Spain, Phil Ball suggests the historic dominance of foreigners in La Liga and the cultural divisions of the nation could have rubbed off invisibly on La Selección.

Journalist Guillem Balague told me this week he thought Spain had never had a winners' mentality because of repeated failure, so just needed a rub o' the green to have a chance to prove they could be victors at last.

While England persist with blind optimism and a fighting spirit despite their poor record, Spain's collective mentality has tended to wither more quickly. Take their 1994 World Cup quarter-final exit to Italy for instance. The Spaniards spurned several chances to win the game before Roberto Baggio finished them off. Valencia winger Vicente summed it up when he replied to a question about Spain's Euro 2004 failure - "What do you expect? We're Spain." By 2006, most of us had given up tipping the Iberians for good.

Only two years ago, eight of the Euro 2008 winners took the field in the second round of the World Cup finals, facing an ageing French eleven. Spain took the lead through David Villa and had 62% of the ball, but France ran out 3-1 winners.

But then along came a saviour. More prosaically perhaps, we can ascribe the torn page in the record book to Luis Aragones.

The 69 year-old might hail from Madrid but his Spanish team have played more 'Catalan' than previous incarnations. Three Blau-grana players featured in the team - Iniesta, Carlos Puyol and Xavi; four if you count former Barça man Cesc Fabregas, while Real Madrid had only two - goalkeeper Iker Casillas and right-back Sergio Ramos.

The short-passing 'tiki-taka' style of Spanish play looked a lot like Barcelona to me, while the speed of midfield exchanges and player rotation called to mind the best of Valencia's Champions League endeavours in recent years. David Silva and Euro 2008 top gunner David Villa play for that club.

Silva was one of Spain's unsung heroes, as mobile and skilful an attacker as any in the team, while the excellent Brazilian-born holding midfielder Marcos Senna was for me one of the players of the tournament, an award which went in the end to Xavi.

The team was short by modern standards, which makes their triumph over the tall and muscular Germans even more pleasing.

Their goalkeeper was not perhaps the best in the tournament but was no slouch. And while centre backs Puyol and Carlos Marchena lacked a little speed, and full backs Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila weren't the best positionally, they defended stoutly enough to repel the best Italy, Russia and Germany could throw at them and kept clean sheets in the knock-out stages.

The statistics are staggering: Across the tournament, Spain had more than twice as many shots on target than Germany and made 900 more passes than them with an 81% completion rate, the highest in Euro 2008, just eclipsing the Dutch. They were No.1 for shots on target and with 12 goals, hit the net more than anyone else: End of story.

What a great time to be Spanish. Even die-hard Catalans, Galicians and the odd Basque have had to swallow their pride and join the fiesta. If the frail-looking 69 year-old Aragones can get the bumps, so can they enjoy the special moment, too.

All in all, a magnificent victory for Spain and a beautiful day for football. Olé!

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Bet with Bet 365

World Soccer News

Soccer betting tips

Soccer Books & DVDs

No comments: