Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Reign of Spain needs challenging

Spain the best ever? 

Por favor - who was saying that when Jesus Navas' 88th minute strike spared their blushes against Croatia? Or at half-time in the semi-final when Portugal's forward-thinking play had turned tiki-taka into upfield punts. Aren't we basing this claim on the back of one freaky game?

It's futile to compare eras anyway. La Seleccion Espanola of 2012 would probably win a tournament comprising Brazil of '58 and '70, the Mighty Magyars, the Dutch of '74, Real Madrid of the '50s, Liverpool of the '80s, il Grande Torino, Das Wunderteam and Sacchi/Capello's Milan of the '90s.

Football gets faster, fitter and more organised as time marches on, so even the Republic of Ireland of Euro 2012 could have beaten some of the finest elevens of yesteryear. If historical greatness can be measured by comparing how far particular champions were ahead of their rivals, then there is a case to be made for Spain being top of the tree after an unprecedented third straight trophy.

But I have my doubts. The Euro final was an odd match, and one played at exhibition pace once Italy had given up the ghost. The last two strikes were like a boxer slugging an opponent already slumped on the canvas, the same guy he had failed to beat three weeks earlier, lest we forget.

The Azzurri had ground Spain down to a 1-1 tie in the group stage and though clearly second-best that day, merited a draw for their canny game plan of tight defending and a sucker punch b
reakaway, plucked out of the bible of Italian tactics. Scoring first, the blues had the psychological edge in Gdansk and then opted to hold tight as a point from their toughest group clash would suffice.

"The draw with Italy was the best result we could have got," admitted Fernando Torres afterwards. 
In the final, a change of formation, tactics and some rotten luck led to a different outcome. Taking their cue from Portugal's success in the first half of their semi-final, Italy pressed higher up the field than they had in Gdansk, hoping to cause the same panic Nani & Ronaldo had, while gambling on protecting the exploitable space left behind. But Spain had done their homework and swarmed around Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli, suffocating the Azzurri's danger men.

This time, Spain scored the crucial first goal, skilfully executed but also thanks in part because Italy had advanced and the normally reliable Giorgio Chiellini was struggling with an injury before Cesc Fabregas burned him for pace to set David Silva
up. Italian misfortune struck again when Thiago Motta pulled a hamstring with all substitutes on the field.

Spain's formation in the final worked a treat with the Barcelona trio of Fabregas, Iniesta and Xavi electric and the raiding full-backs Alba and Arbeloa reveling in the room vacated by departing wing-backs in Italy's switch from 3-5-2 to 4-1-3-2.

Their use of pace in Kiev helped dismiss the jealous tag of 'passenaccio' leveled at them in previous games when they laboured to break down massed defences. Spain's passes per goal have increased with each tournament since their Euro 2008 breakout, as more sides follow the US' success in beating them in 2009 with two banks of four.

Spain march on with another trophy in the cabinet but it is hard to call them the greatest of all time when they needed penalties to beat Portugal and might have gone out had Croatia's Ivan Rakitic found the net instead of Iker Casillas with his header. Winning like that while underperforming is the sign of a very good team, but the best ever?

Until the second-half of extra-time in their semi-final, when Spain hit the gas and looked true champions again, Germany had looked at least as likely to bag the cup.
4-0 against Italy was cruel, although Spain certainly deserved to win the game and tournament, let us be clear about that. Even without injured players, Italy probably would have lost that night, although coach Cesare Prandelli blamed exhaustion in his midfield.

Musa Okwonga wrote a fascinating book "A Cultured Left Foot", asking what makes a great player. Someone needs to write one about what makes a great team. There is no definitive answer of course.

My Italian friends were disconsolate on Monday, all "quattro a zero!" incredulity. Only days before they were on seventh heaven after Super Mario had dispatched the Germans with aplomb. Every set of fans in a tournament except the winners' must feel depression at some point, but we always dry o
ur tears and come back for more.

I watched the first round in Spain. Every business seemed to have jumped on La Roja's bandwagon as 'La Eurocopa' had united that nation of regions more than ever because the economy is so sick. Every day bro
ught more news of closures and job losses and talk of emigration and EU bailouts.

With unemployment around 25% and no hope on the horizon, nobody could begrudge the people having something to cheer about. Switch channels after any Spain match and it was back to gloomy 24/7 coverage of the never-ending 'crisis'. This is an unforgettable era for the Spanish on and off the pitch.

Yet as much as I love Spain and tiki-taka, I did not enjoy the one-sided Euro 2012 final. There was something ethereal about La Roja which had not been seen in international football since the 1970 World Cup Final, a flamboyant artistry which began to transcend sport and beckoned avuncular pundits to gingerly enter the world of art appreciation.

Now I used to wax lyrical on fine art but I like football because it has something more than just aesthetics - competition.

When I was growing up, Liverpool were as dominant in the club game as Spain are on the international stage now and I did not enjoy one side being so far ahead of the others then either. 

In medieval Derbyshire, two villages enjoyed a closely-fought game with a football on Shrove Tuesday, an annual brawl which was the original 'derby' and sowed the seeds of the modern game. I don't want that violence in soccer but I do want that keenly contested spirit and an uncertainty about who is going to win.

Hats off to Spain of course, this era's dominant national team with a wonderfully innovative style. They are certainly up there with the best of all time and often dazzling to watch.

But roll on the 2014 World Cup, when other nations added to the mix should make the showpiece more competitive than it was in Kiev. 

For the sake of soccer, it needs to be.

- Sean O'Conor 

1 comment:

dikranovich said...

If Spain wins in brazil in 2014, then there should be little doubt about who is the best ever. Spain won this event with two of their top players in the stands. Impressive by all counts.