In a bravura display of creative, free-flowing, tactically nimble football, Spain made history with a 4-0 victory over Italy. With a performance fitting of champions, Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain became the first European team to win three straight major tournaments and the first to repeat as Euro champions.
After their campaign had been stigmatised by allegations their possession-hungry style of play had become “boring,” La Roja summoned an extra gear in this final to elevate their game and eviscerate their critics.
Spain had reached the final despite occasionally seeming mortal. The loss of its all-time leading scorer, David Villa, had dogged the side throughout. Del Bosque had struggled to compensate for a lack of cutting edge by toggling between a selection of misfiring forwards and playing a “false nine” formation, without a recognised forward. Against Italy, Spain started with Cesc Fabregas. The coach’s selection proved to be inspired.
From the opening whistle, both teams tried to impose themselves on the match. Italy had attempted more long balls than any other side at the tournament, and from the outset, Andrea Pirlo looked to knock the ball toward Mario Balotelli at every opportunity, with the Italian striker trying - and failing - to impose himself physically on Sergio Ramos.
Spain opened the match ambitiously, committing players forward in numbers as Del Bosque had promised in the pre-match news conference. The players passed the ball intricately in their inimitable style, yet uncharacteristically shot on sight from anywhere around the box. Xavi came closest in the 10th minute with a dipping shot which just cleared the bar.
The football La Roja displayed was more direct than at any time in the tournament, and the approach paid off in the 14th minute. Andres Iniesta cut open the Italian defence to find Fabregas a step ahead of Giorgio Chiellini. The Spaniard was strong enough to hold off the defender’s challenge and send the ball in for David Silva to head in with delight. The diminutive Manchester City midfielder may be just 5' 6", but when you play football that directly and creatively, who needs a big striker?
Coming into the final, Spain had an incredible record of winning the previous 70 matches in which they had taken the lead - a span reaching back to September 2006. The statistics may have weighed against the Italians, but manager Cesare Prandelli’s team did not shy from the challenge. But it was an uphill battle for the Azzurri. Pirlo, the creative focal point at the heart of the team, was not man-marked, but the sheer number of Spaniards buzzing around the midfield narrowed his passing options.
Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Cassano picked up some of his slack, with Cassano smashing a drive that Iker Casillas was able to punch away in a congested box. Italy’s best moments came down the left flank. Federico Balzaretti, who had come on to replace the injured Chiellini, floated in an inviting ball which Casillas was able to tip away from the menacing Balotelli.
But Italy’s tenacious commitment to track down an equaliser left them vulnerable at the back, and Spain was soon able to capitalise. From a Casillas goal kick, Xavi slid a pass into the path of a steaming Jordi Alba. The defender had made a run down the left channel at light speed from his left-back position to drive the ball past Gianluigi Buffon. Spain was ahead 2-0 before half-time, and the Spanish substitutes emptied the bench, pouring onto the halfway line to dance a jig of victory. Del Bosque calmly directed them back to the bench. Alba completed a €14 million move to Barcelona this week. The move looks like a bargain for Barca.
At half-time, Prandelli switched Cassano for speedy Antonio Di Natale. The striker’s impact was immediate as he headed over in space from close range. In the 51st minute, Riccardo Montolivo threaded a pass through to Di Natale in space, but Casillas came out quickly to block his swiveled shot. His strike partner, Balotelli, endured a frustrating evening in the face of Spain’s pressing game, running ever deeper to find the ball, blunting the possibility for Italy to find him with a ball dropped behind the Spanish defence.
If the game had not already been killed as a contest, it was in the 61st minute when Thiago Motta suffered a tweaked hamstring. The midfielder had been on the field for only four minutes, and Italy, which had used all of its substitutes, was reduced to ten men. The final 30 minutes of the game served as a curtain call on a Spanish master class that has taken 15 years to build, and a fantastic Euro 2012 that was ebbing to an end.
In the 84th minute, Spain triggered wild celebrations, demonstrating as a show of their power that they could even score with conventional strikers. Xavi again was the creator, sliding the ball to the much maligned Fernando Torres (on in the 75th minute for Fabregas) to finish and become joint top scorer of the tournament with his third goal, and the first man to score in two Euro finals. El Nino turned provider four minutes later, slipping in Juan Mata in a cameo appearance to complete the blowout and seal the Golden Boot.
It was easy to feel sorry for Italy. But they should leave the tournament with pride at their achievement. The Azzurri arrived as anything but a title favorite and under the cloud of a wide-ranging match-fixing investigation, only to play with collective desire, transforming Italy’s traditionally conservative style to a more joyous, commanding brand of football.
At the final whistle, the thumping bass of Seven Nation Army rang out one final time, and in front of their full-throated supporters, La Roja’s triumph was complete, a tremendous victory in which they have beaten every opponent without leaking a single goal in elimination play since 2006. All the while, Del Bosque has been able to maintain a sense of collective mission and harmony in the locker room.
Champions in every sense of the word.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.