On Sunday night, the Spain football team left its opponents confounded, breathless and whipped into an open mouthed awe. And those were just the armchair critics.
God knows how the Italian players felt.
Spain’s 4-0 triumph over Italy at the Euro 2012 finals in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium was the most lopsided result of a major international tournament—ever!
Ironically, it eclipsed another unhappy mark by the Italians. Forty-two years ago, the “Azzurri” was dismantled 4-1 at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico City by a Brazil team that had reached its pinnacle and was subsequently lauded as the greatest team of all time. Until now.
On Saturday, analysts insisted Spain was in decline and was a shadow of a team that won the Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cups. Twenty-four hours later, the same pundits declared that the Spanish outfit was the greatest of all time.
It is the life of a top flight athlete, of course. One scoffed shot can be the difference between utter disgrace and having a statue built in your honour.
For me, it is devilishly difficult to compare such wonderful teams that defined their respective eras. And surely it is farcical to do so based on statistics.
Spain is the first team to win three successive major competitions. Pelé’s Brazil did not seem to take the Copa America very seriously though and that country did not win the regional competition between 1949 and 1989, during which time it lifted three World Cups in a 12-year span.
Do we judge the best team based on a solitary tournament? How many players must still be involved from one competition to the next for it to be considered a continuation of the initial squad?
And what about the changes in the game over time?
Could Andrés Iniesta be as artful in a period when defenders were allowed to boot opponents six feet into the air with barely a peep from the referee and playing fields were as uneven as an obstacle course? Would Rivelino have enjoyed playing at the present pace?
It is better to enjoy each team in its era and Spain is certainly the world’s best team at the moment.
Wired868 predicted a Spanish triumph although the final result was harsh to Italy.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli and much of his first team never played in a game of this magnitude before and it showed.
Prandelli’s decision to field two players who were not fully fit backfired and Italy ended the game with ten players on the pitch. It is a risk on any day. But against a Spanish team that forces opponents to chase shadows for long stretches of play? Mamma mia.
Cesc Fabregas, Spain’s false number nine, outpaced Giorgio Chiellini to create the opening goal for David Silva in the 14th minute and the lumbering Italian defender played just seven minutes more before admitting that he could go no further. And Spain’s two last goals came long after Prandelli’s final substitute, Thiago Motta, was stretchered off with a hamstring injury and Italy was outnumbered.
In between, there was a flurry of set pieces from Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo whizzed across the penalty box but somehow failed to prompt a decisive touch.
Italy’s errors were severely punished by an experienced Spanish team that knows what it takes to lift a trophy. But don’t expect a similar score when these two meet again.
In fact, try not to pay too much attention to the records at all. Statistics lie all the time.
It is why Pelé’s extravagant dummy against the Uruguayan goalkeeper at the 1970 World Cup is an iconic moment although he missed the subsequent shot. And Holland’s “Total Football” defined the 1974 and 1978 tournaments although it won neither.
Ten years from now, people will still discuss Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona but memory is unlikely to be as kind to José Mourinho’s Porto or Inter Milan.
Spain is not defined primarily by the trophies or the fact that they were all lifted in a four-year spell.
It is Spain’s interpretation of the game that stands out. The relationship that Xavi Hernandez and most of his teammates have with the ball and their movement and eye for passing triangles is a joy to watch.
The penalty box might be the final destination but coach Vicente del Bosque’s men appreciate the journey. There is something magical about watching an individual display such precision in his job and pride in its execution; mind and body fused into a perfect harmony.
You can almost close your eyes and see lawn tennis legend, Roger Federer, at his best.
But to have eleven Roger Federers operating in tandem?!
Okay, so right back Alvaro Arbeloa is no Federer but Spain is pretty near perfect all the same in its manipulation of the ball.
It is worth noting that Del Bosque’s Spain is a near replica of Guardiola’s Barcelona minus a certain Argentine named Lionel Messi. Whose team is better?
Spain lacks the individual who sends electricity through your system when he lowers a shoulder and changes direction as Messi does. But then there is an admirable purity in Del Bosque’s knights of the round table; all interchangeable, none more important than the next.
However you chose to separate the two—or Xavi’s Spain from Pelé’s Brazil for that matter—remember that statistics are not a reliable guide.
Still not convinced?
Then, try using figures to differentiate the real star and passenger within Del Bosque’s ranks.
One of Spain’s attackers started every game yet ended the tournament without a goal and only one assist, which supposedly made him less productive than the team’s left back. His name is Iniesta and teammates and opponents agree that he is the squad’s most gifted player.
The other ended as the European Championship’s top scorer and will place that individual award and Euro medallion alongside the Champions League and FA Cup accolades he already secured this season. He is Fernando Torres and, judging by the record books, he must have been on fire in 2012. Yet, he was often a late substitute at this tournament.
The truth, as always, lies in between.
Spain is the best team in the world at the moment and play in a fresh, unforgettable manner. Let us just enjoy that fact.
Editor’s Note: Andrés Iniesta was named as the official UEFA Player of the Tournament subsequent to this article’s publication; statistics be damned