Is Spain the greatest football team ever? They have set such unique benchmarks like becoming the first to win three major international titles and back to back Euro championships that they are now being rated with Pele’s 1970 World Cup winning Brazilian team, the Euro 1972 and World Cup 1974 winning West German team and Yohan Cryuff’s Holland side of total Football fame. The legendary Pele has, understandably, said that the 1970 Brazilian team had better individual players. Pele is right as all the great teams of the past, including the magnificent Hungarians of the mid-1950s, relied on supremely gifted individuals to set them apart.
The 1970 Brazilian team had Pele, Tostao, Gerson, Rivelinho and Jairzinho. The magical Magyars relied on “The galloping major” Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Josef Bozik. In the 1970s, West Germany’s dominance was due to gifted individuals like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Gunter Netzer. Holland’s Total Football flourished due to the brilliance of Johan Cryuff and Johan Neeskens.
What sets the current Spanish team apart is that they have a brilliant system, and so don’t need brilliant individuals. As the saying goes, happy is the land that needs no heroes. For Spain, the team is the star. Many of the great teams of the past like Brazil and Holland had weak goalkeepers. Hungary’s defence was, at times, shaky. But Spain has no weak link. Iker Casillas is amongst the world’s top goalkeepers. Spain’s defence is also incredible. Since Euro 2008, in the knock out stage of three major tournaments, they have not conceded a single goal, in about a thousand minutes of play. The last time Spain conceded a goal in the knock-out round of a major tournament was in the 2nd round of the 2006 World Cup. On 27 June 2006, Spain led France 1-0 but the latter, inspired by Zinedine Zidane, recovered to win 3-1.
Spain’s perfect Euro 2012 final performance in Kiev negated the opinion that time and fatigue were catching up with Vicente del Bosque’s squad. The 4-0 thrashing of Italy not only ended that argument but also made clear the strength of Spain’s desire. A number of other cliches surrounding this oft-misunderstood team were also removed. The final cast aside the notion that Spain’s miserly defence was solely built on ball retention. La Furia Roja had a light possession advantage overall (52% to 48%), but Italy had 56% possession in the second period
But Spain was incisive and decisive and what they did with the ball counted. Their second goal, by Jordi Alba, was a case in point. Seven seconds passed between Barcelona‘s newest signing starting the move in his own half and the ball entering the net. It showed another side of Spain’s game overlooked by many critics. Their impeccable technique and movement is taken for granted, but the sheer attacking power on display showed the extraordinary levels of fitness within the entire squad.
In Euro 2012, Spain averaged an incredible 692 passes per game, 100 passes more than in the 2010 World Cup, when the average was 588 passes per match. Spain combined precision with flair. Their measured through passes, off the ball movements, football intelligence and quickly re-grouping to regain possession has made them successful, pleasing and unique. The efficiency of its clubs’ soccer academies and the high quality coaching staff will ensure that Spain’s incredible era of domination continues and they will be favourites for the 2014 World Cup also. So it is not just a great generation of players that has made this Spanish team successful but a quality system.
It is the system and sound management, not just quality players that have helped Spain become one of the al time greats in football. The national team has always had good players and has been on the cusp of greatness for nearly two decades.
In the 1994 World Cup in USA, on 9 July at the Foxboro stadium in Boston, Spain was dominating their quarter final against Italy. They lost the initiative when Luis Enrique’s nose was broken by Italy’s Mauro Tassotti. Reduced to ten men, they lost the tie 1-2. They were again unlucky in the Euro 1996 quarter final against hosts England. Central defender Miguel Angel Nadal (uncle of Rafal Nadal) was supreme and won all the aerial duels with England’s striker Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham. Jose Caminero and striker Julio Salinas missed sitters and England won the tie on penalties.
Fast forward to the 2002 World Cup. In extra time of the quarter final against hosts South Korea, winger Joaquin’s measured cross from the byline was headed in for what was to be a golden goal match winner by striker Fernando Morientes. An inept assistant referee ruled that the ball had marginally crossed the line before being crossed. TV replays clearly showed the ball was in and the official had got it wrong. South Korea benefitted by this ‘strange home decision’ and won on penalties to reach the semi final. The Spanish squad for the 2002 World Cup which included both Iker Casssillas and Xavi had the talent to have reached the final but were deprived by a cruel decision.
Even in the 2006 World Cup, Spain seemed the most impressive team in the league phase. However, despite taking the lead against France, in the pre-quarter final, the brilliance of Zidane helped the latter win 3-1. So misfortune, inept supervision and lack of mental toughness had led to Spain’s downfall in the past.
For generations, Spain has played attractive pass and move the tiki-taka style of football. Credit for the turn around must go to 69-year-old Luis Aragones, who in 2008 was the oldest coach ever to have taken a team to the European championship final. But Aragones transformed Spain’s approach to a match. During their Euro 2008 campaign, the Spanish team would combine possession and neat passing with competitiveness and penetration. Aragones built a cohesive young side, not distracted by club loyalties and with the ability to both grind out results and play attractive football.
The impact of Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph is far-reaching. They overcame their bogey team Italy in the quarter final. Having broken this jinx, it gave them the confidence to take on the world. They also exorcised the ghosts of the past of playing attractive football but losing the crunch matches. Above all, in 2008 they established themselves as a powerhouse in European football.
Aragones’ successor, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 winning coach Vicente del Bosque, made Spain more compact, with the inclusion of two holding midfielders Xavi Alonso and Sergei Busquets. Thus, the current Spanish team has greater balance in midfield and is both creative and a sound defensive unit.
So it is the proper policies and vision of the Real Federacion Espanola de Futbal (Spanish Football federation) and clever man management and tactical skills of national coaches Aragones and del Bosque that has taken Spain to the top of world football. Success breed imitation and since 2008, many Spanish clubs are also playing the pass and move, tiki-taka style of football. So a generation of Spanish club players are being groomed to play quality football. From this quantity, quality players keep emerging for the national side.