Euro 2012: Spain give thrilling lesson on how football should be played
THIS was so much more than a stunning scoreline conjured up by one of the most magical collection of footballers in history. This was a statement by Spain, a thrilling 90-minute advertisement to the world over how the game should be played, with skill, movement, bursts of unstoppable pace, with pass after pass after pass. This was simplicity and beauty, golden football leading to silverware.
This was also history in the making. Spain made it an unprecedented three trophies in a row, playing with a panache that allows these footballing fireflies in red to stand legitimate comparison with those great 1970 Brazilian artists called Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelinho and Gerson.
Ill-judged comparisons are made far too frequently in the modern era, but this generation of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the four who started all three finals at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and here at Euro 2012, deserves such a substantial accolade as association with Pele’s kings.
Casillas was all authority and some vital interceptions. Jordi Alba was all shimmering class at left-back, defending and raiding in equal measure. Xabi Alonso, in the middle, kept the moves ticking over, kept sweeping passes over short range and long.
Cesc Fabregas delivered one of his most influential displays, his movement soon a mystery to the Italian defence. The ‘false No 9’ with No?10 on his back made Spain’s first goal for David Silva, Alba struck a sumptuous second before Fernando Torres and Juan Mata arrived like matadors to finish off wounded foe.
This was also a night to celebrate Spain’s calm, avuncular, inspiring guiding force. Vicente Del Bosque became only the second coach to steer a side to both the World Cup and the European Championship, matching the feat of West Germany’s Helmut Schön at the 1972 Euros and then World Cup in 1974. After Schön of Germany came the beautiful game from Spain. The history books were taking some updating.
Their victory was a fillip for those seeking to reform the youth-development system in England, focusing more on artistry than athleticism. English football needs to listen more to the patter of tiny feet, to the ball-whisperers called Xavi and Iniesta. Small of frame but colossal of talent, both were outstanding, controlling midfield as if they had been handed the title deeds.
As Xavi and Iniesta collected their medals at the end, the watching eyes of Andrea Pirlo moistened. Italy’s 33-year-old playmaker had been superb on the way to the final, but simply could not get on the ball enough. Even when he did, Spanish players swarmed around him, operating in gangs to win the ball back, like pickpockets on piece-work. Little Silva put in some big challenges. It was as if Spain were affronted that Italy dared dwell in possession.
If the pulse-rate was quickened by Spain, the heart still went out to Italy. Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Mario Balotelli gave so much to these epic Euros. Balotelli looked devastated at the end, disappearing down the tunnel before re-emerging, joining the defeated but dignified ranks of this fine Italian side. Cesare Prandelli moved amongst his distraught players, telling the likes of Balotelli that he is young and will get more chances. The 21 year-old enhanced his reputation as a striker of genuine international class these past few weeks.
Yet Balotelli hardly had an opportunity here, particularly when Italy went down to 10 men after an hour, having used all their subs, including Thiago Motta, who then damaged a hamstring. Italy really needed 12, let alone 11 or 10, to cope with Spain.
Boring, boring Spain? Make that scoring, scoring. Spain had been derided as lacking a penetrative edge, their style described as passenaccio, tiki-taka or tippy-tapas so they simply moved up a gear, playing with far greater tempo, soon seizing the lead.
Xavi, inevitably, was involved, finding Iniesta, inevitably. Xavi could find Iniesta in the Kalahari let alone in Kiev. Iniesta swept a pass of elegance and malevolence behind Giorgio Chiellini, the ball almost winking mockingly at the full-back as it sped past. Fabregas controlled the ball effortlessly with his first touch, his second cutting it back strongly towards Silva. The little gem that Manchester City fans call Merlin scored with a powerful header.
Italy had to scavenge for scraps. Balotelli tried to run through on goal, attempting to outpace Ramos but Casillas was out quickly to clear. Another swirling Pirlo corner produced another punched clearance from Casillas.
This was absorbing fare for the crowd, although the Olympic Stadium was not full, a reflection on the perfect storm of economic ill-winds, inflated ticket prices and long distances. It was still a cosmopolitan audience, the fans’ flags declaring allegiance to Spain, Italy, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Portsmouth, Chesterfield and Renfrewshire United.
They had so much to watch. Forget tiki-taka. Spain’s second was turbo-taka. Alba, looking an absolute snip at the €14?million Barcelona paid Valencia, has experienced some serious challenges for left-back of the tournament, notably from Portugal’s Fabio Coentrao, but he showed why he was the best here. Passing to Xavi, Alba took off like a sprinter, knowing that Xavi would return the compliment. Xavi did. Right into the left-back’s path. Alba then finished expertly, sliding the ball past Buffon.
Half-time arrived, the DJ surely paying tribute to Spain’s effect on opponents with “another one bites the dust”. Prandelli sent on Antonio Di Natale, who really should have scored but headed over.
Motta, having replaced Riccardo Montolivo, was carried off on a stretcher, leaving Italy’s defence even more open to the elements.
Xavi sent Torres through and he finished in style, stroking the ball emphatically past Buffon. The poacher then turned goalmaker, Torres inviting Mata to make it 4-0. Some statement. Some team.