How many players have an opportunity to score four goals in a major final? Virtually none, you would say. Thiago Alcantara, already in the history books with an amazing first-half hat trick for Spain against Italy in the Under-21 European Championship final, was given that extraordinary chance when Martin Montoya was brought down in the area. The Barcelona prodigy, crowned the best player at the previous edition of the tournament in Denmark two years ago, decided not to take it, and gave the ball to Isco, the man who completely outshone him in Spain's previous games in Israel. The Malaga man duly converted the penalty to make a second title in succession absolutely certain.
That togetherness is one of the most crucial aspects of La Rojita victory. At the news conference after the game, Thiago simply stated: "I took the first penalty, so my friend took the other." "But didn't you want to score four goals?" I asked. "That is not important. The important thing is that we won," the captain answered.
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said: "We are all one team. Every player has his individual qualities and personality, but the team is above all." To make that clearer, he specially mentioned Sergio Canales, the midfielder who returned home after being injured in the first game. "This success also belongs to him, and we played for him," Lopetegui added.
Lopetegui's quiet leadership must not be underestimated. His background makes him the perfect man for the job. A Basque from Gipuzkoa country, a Real Sociedad academy graduate, he went on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. Once considered the brightest goalkeeping prospect in Spain, Lopetegui didn't fulfill his potential, failing to compete with the legendary Paco Buyo at Real, and then losing the fight for the place between the posts to Carles Busquets, Sergio's father, at Camp Nou. Having had his spells at both big clubs, however, he knows their mentality perfectly, especially after he worked at Real Madrid B as a coach for a season. He can easily communicate to Basque and Catalan players in his squad, as well as the Madridistas.
It was quite amusing to watch Alvaro Vazquez, of all people, leading the celebrations on the field after the final whistle. One could expect him to be disappointed, having played such a small part in the tournament after scoring no fewer than five goals in the qualifiers. But the Getafe striker was full of energy and smiles. He was the first to congratulate Thiago at halftime, and he was hugging all of his teammates when the title was won. It was a bit reminiscent to Pepe Reina playing the most important part in Spain’s World Cup and European Championship-winning celebrations. The player most responsible for the team spirit is a player on the bench. In fact, even the tournament's top scorer was a bench player, but Alvaro Morata wasn't heard complaining prior to finally being selected in the starting lineup tonight. That could be the secret of Spain’s success all along.
Thiago's achievement was extraordinary to say the least, as he was the final's best player for the second time in a row. His scoring feat can be remotely compared to that of Zinedine Zidane in the 1998 World Cup -- that was certainly not the best tournament for Zizou, but he scored twice in the final against Brazil, and it is all that the world remembers. Zidane's teammates made the win possible 15 years ago, and Thiago's teammates made his personal triumph possible this time.
Spain's teamwork on the pitch is beautiful to watch, and their devotion to total football is remarkable. Near the end of the first half, for example, right back Martin Montoya joined the attack, and when the ball was lost he started pressing the Italian keeper Francesco Bardi as if he were a center forward. At the other side of the pitch, it was Isco, the tournament's most brilliant player, taking Montoya's place in the defence. That is the way Spain play in all age groups, and that is how they rule the world.
It must be said, though, that the Under-21 team is more enjoyable, when compared to the national team coached by Vicente del Bosque. While tiki-taka style and ball retention are absolutely integral to it, Lopetegui's players are much quicker in transition and are more willing to attack. While Spain were desperately boring against France and lucky against Portugal before exploding versus Italy at Euro 2012, La Rojita were dominating their opponents for the first minute of the championship to the last, and they did it in style, creating countless scoring chances.
It will be fascinating to watch the progress of this team. It is very experienced already, with most of the stars playing an important part at their clubs, especially Koke at Atletico Madrid, Inigo Martinez and Asier Illarramendi at Real Sociedad, not to mention David de Gea at Manchester United and Isco, who has already taken the Champions League by storm last season and now has to choose between Manchester City and Real Madrid to continue his career. Those players are more than worthy of a place at the World Cup squad in Brazil next year, but the competition is going to be extremely difficult, and some of them at least will have to be left at home.
Experience had a very significant role in the final's outcome. All the Italian defenders have never played in Serie A, and it showed as they made crucial mistakes. Captain Luca Caldirola, forced to leave Inter for Cesena in search of first-team football, was at fault for Thiago's second goal when completely misjudging the Koke pass. Right back Giulio Donati, who plays for Grosseto, rock-bottom and relegated from Serie B this season, brought Cristian Tello down in the penalty area in the first half, while left back Vasco Regini of Empoli clumsily fouled Montoya after the break.
This Spain generation will face tougher tests in the future, but one thing is certain -- that future looks very bright.