Monday, 2 July 2012

The History Men

By Shane Thomas

In the build-up to last night's Euro 2012 final, one pundit sounded a word of warning to Italy. He stated that while Spain had reached the crescendo of the competition, they had done so without performing to their best. Rather than use this as a positive omen, he thought it was more of a portent, as Spain were due a top-class performance.
Well, in Kiev we saw it. Spain produced a display for the ages, a perfect riposte to those who had the temerity to brand the Iberians as boring.

Inexplicable punditry aside, it was a joyful end to what has been a fine tournament - set to be ruined as Euro 2016 will contain 24 teams. Many who disparaged the Spaniards for their tiki-taka style often fail to comprehend that tiki-taka is in fact a defensive tactic as much as an attacking one. When your priority is to retain possession, it negates your opponents ability to score a goal.

Spain's issue had not been their monopoly of the ball, but the pedestrian speed at which they would use it. It was very much like a boxer who had fierce punching power, but rather than looking for an early knockout, would focus on body punches to wear down their opponent, only waiting until the closing rounds to finish the job once their foe was too exhausted to put up any meaningful resistance.

But the Spanish came out like Mike Tyson at his best, looking to land the big bombs early. Italy's insistence on trying to attack themselves also expedited things, but Spain's midfield were sharp, passing the ball with real snap, and moving off the ball with menacing intent. 

The first goal was the embodiment of tiki-taka at its best. A 14 pass move that culminated with Xavi to Iniesta to Fabregas to Silva; Goal. No man took more than three touches in the coruscating move. Once Jordi Alba made it 2-0 with a counter-attack of breathtaking pace and precision, the contest was over. Italy had cruel luck, going down to 10 men after using all three of their substitutes, but you could counter that by saying Spain were denied two good penalty shouts in the second half. 

Also, a quick note on Alba's goal. As he raced from one end of the pitch to the other, I thought to myself that it was the type of goal that Gareth Bale was capable of scoring. However, it should not escape notice that despite being linked with the Welshman, Barcelona opted to buy Alba rather than Bale. Alba is going to the Camp Nou for a fee of around £11 million. Somehow I think you'd need more than that to buy Gareth Bale, but why bother when Spain have an equally good version, without all the emetic media hype.

The 4-0 result meant that this was nothing more than a coronation. Simultaneously holding the European Championship and the World Cup is a rarity. Winning three successive international tournaments is unprecedented. To do so in such a manner means that a definitive and historic era in football has been rubber stamped.

All sporting legends need an occasion to cement their immortality. A result that will be their calling card forever. Sir Alex Ferguson's demented lust for trophies will always be embodied by Manchester United's unlikely 2-1 win against Bayern Munich in 1999. The brilliance of the original Galacticos have one result as their touchstone; Hampden Park, the 1960 European Cup Final, Real Madrid 7; Eintracht Frankfurt 3. Then there's Brazil 4; Italy 1 in 1970, finished with arguably the greatest team goal ever seen.

Let's not forget the dominant AC Milan era of Gullit, Van Basten, Sacchi, Capello, Baresi and Maldini. Their crowning glory came in the 1994 European Cup Final, when they demolished Barcelona's Dream Team 4-0, in one of the most savage beatings ever seen in a major football final.

In fact, what Spain did was quite redolent of the Rossoneri's triumph over the Catalans. But La Roja's win was infused with a pleasing selflessness. When Italy had the ball, the men in red pressured them with zeal and alacrity. Vicente Del Bosque's plan to play Xavi directly against Andrea Pirlo was a masterstroke, denying Italy's progenitor any space, allowing Xavi to control the game and have his best match of the tournament.

But the encapsulation of this mindset came from an unlikely source. After scoring to make it 3-0, Fernando Torres needed one more goal to win the Golden Boot, awarded to the competition's top scorer. And when played through on goal late on, Torres immediately looked up and spotted substitute Juan Mata, in a more advantageous position to score.

Despite the victory already being secure, it didn't enter Torres' head for a second to do anything other than pass to Mata, who tapped the ball into the empty net, and put the polish on the 4-0 win - it transpired that the assist was enough to get Torres the Golden Boot anyway.

The man who's easily forgotten in the midst of the deluge of platitudes is the manager, Del Bosque. A reserved, quiet man, who looks more like a kindly uncle than a football man, has now entered the discussion as being the greatest manager of them all. His list of accolades now includes the European Championship to add to his two La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues, and a World Cup.

The titles Spain have won has put them in the pantheon of the greats. But Spain are no longer great. They have surpassed this. Great is no longer an apposite adjective to ascribe to them. They are legends. They are immortal. They are the History Men.

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