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By Matthew Handley
Euro 2012 is over, and Spain, predictably, sauntered to a defence of their title, and a third successive major international tournament win. As they progressed to a semi-final clash with Iberian neighbours Portugal, expending little effort as they dominated everyone put in front of them, the universal admiration with which they’d been lavished for the previous four years began to slip away, and an increasing vocal circle of critics decried the Spaniards’ playing style as ‘boring’; it was an accusation levelled by everyone from Arsene Wenger to Alan Shearer (although the beige-clad human forehead could only just be heard over a pot having a conversation with a kettle), and implicit within was the notion that Spain had some sort of obligation to place the entertainment of the neutral over competitive success.
Spain did not have a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, no irresistible attacking threat who, with the ball at their feet, could be expected to win games on their own. Instead they relied on, what was at most times a 6-man midfield, and wave after wave of imperious passing that would expend the energy of their opponents, before Xavi or Iniesta would thread an incisive pass through to create a chance. This was not the ‘Total Football’ of the great Dutch team of the 1970s, or the sheer attacking dominance of Hungary’s ‘Magic Magyars’, but instead ‘death by a thousand cuts’ football. Some may have found it boring; I personally found it mesmerising. But to criticise Spain for not altering a game-plan which has proven to be mightily successful is incredibly strange; if you can render yourselves unplayable then why on earth would you leave yourselves exposed to merely ramp up the thrill factor.
Despite drawing 1-1 with Italy in the group stage, it was only against Portugal in the Semi-Final that Spain were faced with a test in a do-or-die situation. A hardworking and seemingly endlessly energetic Portuguese defence were able to consistently pressurise the Spanish, and refused to allow themselves to be worn down by constantly chasing the ball, whilst the magnificent Fabio Coentrao was a menacing presence behind Ronaldo on the right. However, even against an opposition who appeared to have Vicente Del Bosque’s tactics sussed, they were able to hold firm before combining titanium bollocks with the necessary luck to progress into the final via penalty shoot-out.
In Sunday’s final, Spain were quite frankly magnificent. Xavi and Iniesta, showed puppet mastery that Jim Henson would be jealous of, dictating the entire game and nullifying the threat of the majestic Andrea Pirlo, Jordi Alba and David Silva were jinking nuisances throughout, and Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were the core of a defence of strength and agility. Whilst Italy going down to 10 men after Thiago Motta’s injury made the last half hour a formality, the 4-0 scoreline was reflective of a performance which combined that suffocating passing game with the incisive attacking flair Messrs Wenger and Shearer so yearned.
Spain’s 3 successive tournament victories, attained without conceding a single goal during knockout rounds means that they are the most decorated group of players in international football history. Whether or not you deem their style to be boring, what is undeniable is that they have fashioned a way of playing that compels teams to adapt and accommodate; the mark of a truly great side is that you force your opponents to have your style rather than their own at the forefront of their minds when preparing.
Andres Iniesta perhaps put it best when interviewed after Sunday’s triumph. A pleasingly anachronistic model of humility, the greatest midfielder in the world said ‘We are not here to say that our game is the most beautiful of them all; everybody has a different view. Today, we had a great level of play and were faithful to our style. This victory is unique and magical. It cannot be repeated’. Three consecutive tournament successes and creating a footballing philosophy and style that can make the world’s greatest defences quiver and make the best attackers impotent. Call them ‘boring’ if you want, but this Spanish side is the greatest the world has ever seen. And the scary thing is, they’re not even done yet…