Spain, the defending European and world champions, trounced Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012 with a sumptuous display of incisive passing and clinical finishing. La Roja’s singular performance made an absolute mockery of the “boring” tag bestowed upon Spain, due to coach Vicente del Bosque’s strikerless 4-6-0 formation.
But as those copious bottles of Rioja clear from the heads of La Roja fans — no doubt, they are still dizzy from being the first side to win back-to-back-to-back European, World Cup and European championships — the truth, albeit fuzzy, is emerging. To put the no-striker argument to bed once and for all, let us state that if your best forward is recovering from injury (David Villa) and you don’t (to use the footballing vernacular) “fancy” your available options (Fernandos Llorente and Torres), then why not swamp the latter two-thirds of the pitch with (deep breath) Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva? Indeed, such was Spain’s dominance that during the majestic first half of the final, left back Jordi Alba was able to race half the length of the field, take Xavi’s perfect pass in his stride and effectively put the game to bed. In Spain’s brave new world, everyone gets to be the striker.
So do the Spanish deserve the best-of-all-time label? The facts make a compelling case. Since losing to France in the 2006 World Cup, Spain has won 10 successive knockout games without defeat or conceding a goal. Spain has finished two qualifying campaigns in a row with a 100% record. And strikes by Silva, Alba, Torres and Juan Mata in the final mark the first time four goals were scored in a Euro final.
But we’re also obliged to play the part of devil’s advocate and thus note that Italy suffered injuries during the final, which certainly contributed to the thrashing: Giorgio Chiellini came off after 20 minutes and third substitute Thiago Motta had to be stretchered off mere minutes after coming on, meaning his side played with 10 men for much of the second half. Italy looked extremely tired too, which wasn’t a surprise considering the work that they put in against the favored Germany in last Thursday’s semi-final.
And up until the final, many had questioned Spain’s performances (including ourselves). It’s undeniable that Spain was on the back foot in its opening game with Italy, and La Roja didn’t look entirely convincing against Croatia and Portugal either. Of course, you can only play what’s in front of you. But you can argue that this isn’t the strongest of eras in international football, with the likes of France, England and Holland in disarray (as were Italy before the tournament kicked off) and Brazil and Argentina not firing on all cylinders.
While we wouldn’t necessarily disagree if you maintain this Spanish team is the best ever, it’s fun to look back. From the 1950s, two teams enjoy legitimate claims. The Mighty Magyars of Hungary, built around the peerless Ferenc Puskas, served notice by delivering England its first ever home defeat in 1953 by the ludicrous score of 6-3. Many, to this day, maintain that Hungary should have won the World Cup in Switzerland the following year. Alas, a runner-up spot in the so-called Miracle of Berne final to go with an Olympic gold in 1952, as well as victory in the 1953 Central European tournament, had to suffice.
The Brazilian side that emerged soon after has a much stronger claim. The scenes of a 17-year-old Pelé being hoisted around the pitch in floods of tears after scoring two goals in a 5-2 win over host nation Sweden in the 1958 World Cup final seems to lack the attention it deserves because the images were in black and white, and there isn’t much footage. But compared with the Brazilian charges of 1970, many of whom had reached the peak of their careers, the earlier incarnation was better at blending attack with defense: in 1958, Brazil didn’t concede a goal until the semifinal. Brazil retained the trophy four years later in 1962 and only a controversial refereeing call prevented them from winning the Copa América in 1959. Here was a side that encouraged the fullbacks to attack while breaking new ground by employing the likes of physical specialists, doctors, dentists and even a sports psychologist.
The 1970s was a stellar decade. There was the great Brazilian side of Mexico 1970, plus imperious West Germany, who followed up winning Euro 1972 with a World Cup victory on home soil in 1974. Many had hoped the silky “Total Football” produced by Holland — in no small part due to Johan Cruyff and coach Rinus Michels — would have been too much for West Germany in that 1974 final, but the Dutch ended up coming second in two consecutive World Cups. This runner-up status doesn’t exactly enhance Holland’s claims, though at least its long-suffering fans would have something to cheer on German soil by winning Euro 1988.
The greater part of 25 years would thus elapse before we could anoint another truly great side, in the form of France. Before then, Argentina had produced marvelous World Cup–winning teams, though they were galvanized by Mario Kempes in 1978 (on home soil) and the mercurial Diego Maradona in Mexico 1986. In between, had the magical Brazilian outfit of 1982 won that World Cup — our friends in Italy got the better of them and everyone else that year — we might have witnessed another period of dominance but incredibly, the likes of Socrates, Zico and Falcao never fulfilled their potential.
Instead, it would be the multicultural, multitalented French, spearheaded by Zinedine Zidane, that won the 1998 World Cup at home before doubling up with the 2000 Euro title (a wag might point out that the French forward line in 1998 was so inept that they too played a 4-6-0 formation).
So given all this rich football history, is Spain the greatest side of all time? It’s not entirely clear. But if Spain becomes the first European side to win a World Cup in South America in Brazil 2014, the debate will be put to rest forever.