KIEV, Ukraine -- Two hours after the final whistle had blown, a thousand Spanish fans still stood on the steps of the Olympic Stadium, their chants of “Champeones” ringing out into the night. Despite the best efforts by security guards to move them on, they did not want to leave. Their team had just made history, becoming the first national side to win three consecutive major tournaments. They had not just won, they had decimated Italy’s valiant opposition 4-0. The fans didn’t want the magic to end.
What a magical night it had been. Spain had gone for the jugular early in this final, summoning an extra gear to elevate its game and eviscerate its critics who had tried to tar its possession-hungry game as “boring.” Consider these testaments to La Roja’s dominance.
• In this tournament, Spain leaked a single goal – the fewest by a champion in the group stage era. That is 509 minutes without conceding, a tournament record.
• Spain has now secured 10 straight shutouts in major-tournament elimination games, representing almost 17 hours of scoreless game time.
• The much maligned Fernando Torres, a striker on a “strikerless team,” who has suffered throughout the tournament, still managed to scoop the golden boot with a goal and an assist in garbage time against Italy.
Spain’s coach, Vicente Del Bosque, who entered the team news conference with a winner’s medal around his neck, quickly made history for a second time by smiling for the first time all tournament as he was given an ovation by the Spanish media. But the taciturn coach was modest about the nature of his team’s achievement, defining the injury to Thiago Motta that left Italy with just 10 men as the turning point in the game. “We have played friendlies where we have lost 4-0,” the coach admitted, referring to the recent reverse to Portugal. “This can happen. Two teams can be not so different but then luck occurs. They suffered an injury and everything turned our way.”
However, the coach was eager to praise his players for both the result and the style in which it was accomplished. “We played an extraordinary match tonight,” Del Bosque said, “but Italy was a very difficult opponent for us. It was only because they did not have luck that made it seem so comfortable by the end. We played our own game and were faithful to what we have done in the past.”
Del Bosque insisted he did not purposefully save the team’s best performance for the final match. “This is a very intense tournament,” he said. “You cannot plan anything. We had to play against Italy to open [Euro 2012]. We then won comfortably against Ireland and then suffered against Croatia. The important steps we took against France and Portugal cost us dearly in terms of our fatigue.
“We are talking about a great generation of footballers,” Del Bosque continued in attempting to identify the root cause of Spain’s unprecedented success. “They have roots that run deep. They know how to play because they learned in a country where people know how to play properly. The fact that our lads now play in foreign leagues, which is something that did not happen before, has helped make this a great era for Spanish football.”
The coach also played down any predictions for what Spain’s victory without starting a recognized striker meant for the sport. “There is not one single type of football,” Del Bosque said. “The important thing is always to score goals. The players on our team are very intelligent, so goals can come from anywhere. [Left back] Jordi Alba scored a great goal on a counter-attack. It was really perfect. [Right back] Alvaro Arbeloa also knows how to attack. We have strikers, but we just decided to go with players who went better with our style.”
Del Bosque ended his news conference by conceding that fatigue had weakened his opponent. “We were very lucky tonight,” he said. “Everything worked for us. They tried so hard even with 10 players. And remember, they had one less day of rest, which made it very hard for them.”
Italy proud in defeat
His opposite number, Italy’s Cesare Prandelli, remained dignified, but he concurred, relentlessly pinpointing the schedule that had his team playing three elimination games in the course of a week as a factor that aided the Azzurri’s defeat. “We were not fit,” he said. “We weren’t fresh … and when we tried to come back we could not cover. We were tired.
“Fatigue is the only regret we can have,” Prandelli continued. “This is the third game we had this week. We lost to a great team of champions, but once we suffered the injury to Motta, the game was over as we did not have anything left in the tank.”
Prandelli looked back to the group game 1-1 tie with Spain and recognized La Roja had learned from the experience. “We were excellent in the group game because we were 100 percent fit, and against a great side like Spain you need to be strong in the tackle,” Prandelli said. “But they completely dominated us this evening. We have to congratulate them.”
There was no shame in defeat for Italy. The sight of Andrea Pirlo leaving the field with a tear rolling down his cheek, aware this is likely his last major international tournament, may have been sadder than Barbara Hershey in "Beaches," but the coach awarded his team’s overall performance an 8 out of 10. “The lads showed if you have team spirit you can chase a dream,” Prandelli said. “You can play football without hacking your opponents. My team all worked hard for each other. They showed you can lose with dignity. I am very proud of them.”
Prandelli also revealed he had counseled a distraught Mario Balotelli after the match. “I told him these are experiences you have to deal with – learning to accept defeats and say that your opponents are better. What’s important is that you make sure you grow from these experiences. This is what sport is all about.”
The Italian coach’s poetic final words may act as a balm for distraught Italian fans around the world. “You can never be happy after a defeat,” Prandelli said. “You always want to win games, but the more time goes on, the more the minutes wear on, the more you realize we had a remarkable tournament. When we fly over Kiev and I see the lights on in the stadium, I will have pangs of disappointment but we will feel much better about this tomorrow.”
Debates will now rage as to whether this Spanish team is the best national side to ever take the field. The vast difference in footbaling eras should make the arguments about their relationship to Brazil’s magnificent 1970 as empty as debating if Viking warriors could battle U.S. Marines.
The “best ever” argument may prove as fruitless as the “Spain is boring” debate, which preceded it. Time may be better used savoring Spain’s second goal, in which Alba ran at the speed of light to connect to Xavi’s exquisite pass. Or to think about Iker Casillas’ parting comments as he left the stadium, having conceded just one goal all tournament. “We worked hard for that, all 23 of us,” he said, deflecting any praise and throwing it back on the entire squad. When asked what Spain’s goal could be after this magical night, the captain did not miss a beat. “We want to win. We just want to keep winning.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.