The best team won (for a change)

June 30, 2008
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

On Sunday night the ex-Liverpool defender Alan Hansen called the final a '1-0 annihilation', and that says it all really.

Spain
GettyImages / MartinOeserTwo Spanish fans revel in Euro 2008 success

For 20 minutes it looked as though the Germans had been watching their videos and doing their homework, and that they would come good at the right time. But it all faded horribly for them, save a few twitches from time to time to remind us that they were still alive. As soon as Spain got their midfield mojo working, Germany - like several sides before them - had no answer.

You could see it at the end in their faces, as Spain celebrated their first tournament win for 44 years. There was no weeping and wailing, reactions which normally signal a close game or emotions that proclaim the tears of a team unjustly defeated. The Germans are too realistic for that. They knew they'd lost to the better side, and it hurt. It often hurts in a way that an unjust defeat does not.

Viva España! And all the rest of the clichés - bullfighting, flamenco improvisation, Saint Iker Casillas and political unity on the horizon. Whatever - the truth is that the best team won, and it seems a long time since we've been able to say that about a major competition.

The best way to put Spain's win into perspective is to contrast this tournament with the previous version in 2004, when Greece took the title. Cute though it was that such an unexpected result took place, Greece won the title using a version of anti-football that made the Italians look like practitioners of total football. It sent out the wrong message in truth. It suggested that anyone could aspire to the title, just so long as the tactics were both negative and efficient.

The combination of negativity and efficiency has been a powerful factor in sport through the ages, but one suspects that it was never meant to be like that. Spain put the beast to death in the happiest of ways this month of June, in what has in general been a tournament to savour. The weaker sides were found out, the negative ones dispatched, and the ones who appeared to be the likely winners (Portugal, Holland) were discovered to be inconsistent in their intentions. Not Spain.

Spain came to the tournament with a midfield that was recognised as the best in Europe, probably the world if you discount the riches available to Argentina. Any squad that could afford to omit Guti, Raúl and Arteta - three players who would have found their way easily into any of the other squads - was one to be reckoned with. But was it enough? Spain also had a problem at centre-back (allegedly) in the anarchic Puyol and the lead-footed Marchena, but even that had a cure.

Marcos Senna
GettyImages / VincenzoPintoMarcos Senna flies the flag

Luis Aragonés, at his grumpy 69 years of age an eternal optimist (despite the suicidal expressions), knew two things before this tournament. He knew that if he could find the right central midfielder to protect the back line, his defenders would play decently enough. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about Marcos Senna, the naturalised Brazilian. Aragonés handed him his Spanish debut (at the age of 30) against the Ivory Coast in 2006 and took him to the World Cup in Germany. But after that he seemed to lose interest in him, until now. And despite the fact that he has probably been Spain's most consistent performer throughout this tournament, Aragonés was criticised early on for picking him in detriment to Xabi Alonso, a player whose passing range is far superior but who does not possess the same defensive instincts.

So Senna played behind Xavi, Iniesta and Silva, with the occasional entrance of Fabregas to mix things along nicely. It worked like a dream, because despite Xavi's poor season at Barcelona (a not surprising result of the disastrous atmosphere at the club), once he was given protection behind and a pair of willing and imaginative movers up front like Torres and Villa, it was like his birthday every game. Xavi ran almost every game that he played in, setting the pace and the rhythm, never allowing the opposition to do the same. He scored a goal (against Russia) and was generally magnificent. But it was the system that worked, not him alone. He has been voted player of the tournament by UEFA's technical panel, but for me it was Senna. It only remains to be seen whether Villarreal can now hang onto him.

The second thing that Aragonés knew was that if the squad didn't get on with each other, it was unlikely to function. For this reason, and this reason alone he decided to omit Raúl from the squad. People talk about the Catalan 'faction' in the group, or the Basque one (aka Xabi Alonso) - as if this automatically meant that there was tension. Well, Carles Puyol is too busy listening to the Ramones to worry about secessionist politics, Xavi is apolitical, and Fabregas is just a kid who lives in London. Not too much radicalism there. The only radical was Raúl, a Spanish nationalist born and bred with a quietly aggressive manner that could intimidate young players and also anyone not committed to the 'cause'. In this sense he merely succeeded Fernando Hierro, who never made any secret of his admiration for 'the good old days' of Spain.

Raúl's brilliance as a player and his contribution to the cause cannot be overlooked, and he will go down as one of the all-time greats of the Spanish game, but he fell out with Aragonés in Germany in 2006 over a tactical dispute, in an incident that seriously weakened the manager's authority in that particular tournament. Aragonés waited for his revenge, and despite the enormous pressure and the constant criticism from the Madrid-led faction of the Spanish press, he never caved in. And now, those same journalists who mounted their absurd campaign to have Aragonés sacked and Raúl re-instated have gone strangely silent.

Luis Aragonés remains something of a loose cannon however, and his decision to accept Fenerbahce's offer before the semi-finals hardly made good sense. He was right to snub any last-minute turnabout from the long-discredited head of the Spanish Federation, Angel Villar, but surely he could have kept the news about Turkey under wraps until after the final?

Despite the sudden feelings of warmth and goodwill to all men that the result has brought in its wake - with the Spanish Queen seen to smile for the first time in 20 years (the last time was when her husband fell off his yacht off Marbella), the Prime Minister punching the air in delight (he's a Barcelona fan, but not a Catalan) and the leader of the opposition Mariano Rajoy sitting in the seats with the ordinary citizens (Marca described this as a human gesture, when in fact the truth is more prosaic - he had to pay for his seat), controversy is never far away.

Spain
GettyImages / AlexLiveseySergios Ramos celebrates Spain's success with the Andalucian flag around his waist

Whilst the papers screamed their headlines and their editorials looked forward to South Africa in two years' time, the blogs were full of arguments over whether Sergio Ramos should have been wearing the Andalucian flag as he celebrated the win. The idea was that if Xavi had done the same with the Catalan flag, and Xabi Alonso with the Basque, all hell would have broken loose, and then Civil War. It's a reasonable point, and Alonso did look distinctly uncomfortable for one nano-second when Santi Cazorla passed him the Spanish flag, but he soon passed it on quickly enough to cause the minimum of fuss.

But enough of such nonsense. Isn't it possible for the Spanish to simply celebrate something, and accept that Andalucian flags, Basque flags and Catalan ones are all part of the Spanish thing? The sight of Catalans, a Basque, and a naturalised Brazilian dancing along in all sincerity with the rest of them is surely the message that we should take home. More of this kind of stuff and the extremists might have a tougher job on their hands.

As far as the football is concerned, I won't repeat what everyone else has been saying since last Sunday night. But it's true that Spain could have won 4-0 quite easily, and the best that Germany managed was a shot from Ballack that wasn't even on target. Germany started well, but were never imaginative enough to really test Casillas. As soon as the Spanish midfield decided to keep the ball, Germany fell apart. Their central defenders looked awful, and Lahm's mistake in allowing Torres to outfight him will play on his conscience for years to come. But maybe not, because Germany should never have been there in the first place. You could see that after the game against Turkey, when the German players' celebrations were strangely half-hearted, as if they knew they'd won it unfairly against a team of reserves. Against Spain they were found out, and they knew it.

Spain's win has been about good technique and imagination - something that the English, for all their boasting about their over-hyped and inflated Premier League, would do well to note. You never know, this tournament might just influence people to play football again. Stranger things have happened.


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