The Greats Debate

Why this Spain side is all-time best

The Euro 2012 trophy has been raised. The red-and-yellow confetti has settled onto the ground.  And Spain can rightly celebrate not only its 4-0 victory over Italy but also its third consecutive major title.

The run of tournament victories, one that includes Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, marks an unprecedented achievement, and with Spain's dynasty cemented, all that’s left is to judge its place in the pantheon of great international sides.

Certainly there are a few worthy candidates to rival La Roja’s accomplishment. There was Brazil’s consecutive World Cup-winning sides of 1958 and 1962. Then there was West Germany’s run in the early 1970s, when it won the 1972 European Championship as well as the 1974 World Cup. Die Mannschaft’s run only ended when it lost the 1976 European Championship on penalties to Czechoslovakia.


Of course, those two teams fell short of Spain’s accomplishment. That Brazil side failed to win any of the numerous South American championships – the forerunner to today’s Copa America – during that time, although it must be said, the tournament wasn’t taken as seriously then as the Copa America is now. One could expand the time horizon to include Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph, but that team was completely different, save Pele, making the talk of dynasty more tenuous.

As for West Germany, it seems a shame to think that a lost penalty shootout, courtesy of Antonin Panenka’s famous chip, is all that stops it from being mentioned in the same breath as Spain. But the European Championship was also a much smaller tournament then, with just four teams making up the final stage. The qualifying process in modern times is also more grueling, with more games being played and longer travel distances. For that reason, Spain is clearly the best European international side in history.

But there is another contender to rival Spain’s achievement, and that is Brazil, starting with the 1994 World Cup and stretching to the 2007 Copa America. Simply put, the résumé is impressive.  During this stretch, the Seleção won two World Cups and four Copa America titles while also losing the final of the 1998 World Cup and the 1995 Copa America.

And for all the praise of Spain’s current crop of players, one that includes the likes of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta, the Brazil teams of this era had some incredible players as well. The five-year period from 1999 to 2004 featured players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos who can all be listed among the greats.

Stylistically, the teams are equal. For all the deserved praise for Spain’s possession game, Brazil’s approach also has been aesthetically pleasing, even if hasn’t quite lived up to the standard of the iconic World Cup-winning side of 1970. Both teams featured attack-minded, highly technical teams that set the standard for what the game should look like.

Yet in terms of pure results, Brazil couldn’t quite do what Spain has now done, namely,  string three consecutive tournament wins together. There always was a hiccup along the way to what could have been Brazil’s streak, whether it was the 1998 World Cup final loss to France or, say, the penalty shootout defeat to Uruguay in the 1995 Copa America final.

A fair argument also could be made that the Euros are a more difficult tournament than Copa America. The battle for European supremacy features a qualifying process that is tougher – there is no comparable process for the Copa – and the field is deeper. Sometimes teams, even Brazil, have opted not to bring full-strength sides to Copa America, although that has changed now that the tournament is being held every four years.

For these reasons, when you look at the four-year run Spain is enjoying, it’s safe to say that it is the best of all time. Can La Roja continue the streak? There’s every reason to think they can. Spain continues to churn out top players, and while Xavi, at age 32, is getting up there in age, performers such as Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Silva are all in their mid-20s. And the team has a coach in Vicente Del Bosque – who, it should be noted, has become the first manager to win the treble of European Championship, World Cup and UEFA Champions League crowns – who seems able to squeeze the best out of his side, even as opponents do everything they can to stop them from playing.

It amounts to a side that has been a joy to watch these past four years, and the sport has been the better for it. And for all the talk of its victories, that may be Spain’s most enduring legacy.



Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

To comment, you must be a registered user. Please Sign In or Register