Sunday 21 January 2018

James Lawton: Magnificent Spain still in shadow of Brazil’s unanswerably brilliant immortals of 1970

James Lawton

James Lawton

Spanish football was everything you wanted it to be in Kiev on Sunday night.

It had all those qualities -- whole and perfectly formed -- that there had been some reason to fear might have, if not disappeared, at least been eroded.

Who could not go into the night exuberant after seeing something you knew would never be forgotten?

But then, what you did not have to do was swallow whole the huge battering of received wisdom that you had just seen the greatest team in the history of the game.

A beautifully orchestrated one expressing itself better, more dynamically, perhaps, than on any other single occasion, certainly.

A team so close they might have been united by family blood as much as extraordinary ambition -- yes, of course. But were they really the best of all time?

No, you couldn't say that. It was much better to live in the moment, to embrace the time and the spectacle and the meaning for today's game wherever it is played, for its own sake.

There had to be exhilaration over an exquisite climax to a European Championship that had rarely lacked competitive integrity and, inevitably, this provoked still more disgust at UEFA's appalling decision to widen it, dilute it and quite shamelessly exploit it financially with a 24-team field in France in four years.


So, yes, if you love football with a special intensity when the barriers are pushed back, when a team has enough courage and ability to dare to be great in any day, any year, the cries of 'Viva Espana' surely soar across almost every border.

Unfortunately, it is apparently not enough to embrace such excellence and emotion, to give to Spain their due without betraying other great occasions and other great teams.

The truth is that after Spain's emergence from a crisis of confidence entirely of their own making, there was nearly as much revisionism in the air as in those days when the Ukrainian capital was part of the Soviet empire.

It was not enough to give Spain the triumph of the night -- and confirmation of their leadership of the world game in four years that have brought the historic haul of two European titles and a World Cup.

Not enough to say that in any age of football, men like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez would be among the finest the game had ever seen.

Indeed, it was as though anyone who had dared suggest that Spain arrived at the Olympic Stadium any less than masterful champions-elect had to be hunted down and bombarded with scorn.

This is absurd, of course. Spain have dominated an epoch of football and rewarded all those who kept faith in their style and their ability.

A number, it has to be suspected, that grew spectacularly after the sublimely executed goals by David Silva and Jordi Alba broke the spirit of an Italy side that had beaten Germany so brilliantly.

But the claims for Spain as the fireworks lit up the old churches and the wide stretch of the Dnieper River simply went too high.

The absurdity has two strands. One is that the team of teams do not reach the apex of their achievement, surpass anything that has happened before, quite so hazardously as the heroes of Sunday night.

They do not run the risk of elimination at the group stage, a possibility that was averted only by a brilliant reflex save from Iker Casillas when Croatia were challenging Spain with increasing menace. The indisputable greatest of all time do not move into the final via the lottery of a shoot-out against Portugal and even then by a margin no wider than half the width of the post, which Cesc Fabregas struck while scoring with the decisive penalty.

The most popular view on Sunday was that Spain had ambushed their critics, stored up a performance guaranteed to end all arguments.

But they could already have been home in the hacienda, nursing a thousand regrets.

That is one reason why a degree of restraint is necessary when considering the wilder claims.

The other is the Brazil of 1970, the Brazil of Pele, Jairzinho and Gerson, Tostao and Rivelino, Carlos Alberto and the often forgotten Clodoaldo, a holding player of such fierce strength and deceptive skill that an independent review body might place him at least alongside the splendid Xabi Alonso.

Of course, we should give to Spain all that is their due, the four years in which they have been so dominant and, supremely, those last 90 minutes in which they showed us the best of themselves.

But not at the cost of the truth, not because of some collective lapse of memory concerning the meaning of a team which won arguably the greatest World Cup of all with quite unanswerable brilliance, who won all of their six games and scored 19 goals.

Not, certainly, because we simply choose to forget the meaning of Pele, who was called the Black Pearl for so many reasons, starting with the fact that he scored two goals as a 17-year-old in the 1958 World Cup final, and who later was at the heart of a team of stunning balance and invention, which had the immense speed and power of Jairzinho, the astonishing intelligence and left foot of Gerson, the acumen of Tostao, who had an eye problem and played much of the time with his back to his opponents' goal but never lost sight of the smallest opportunity to do damage.

Spain may have become the owners, at least for a while, of today's football, but that should not mean the disinheritance of a nation which won the World Cup three times in 12 years and created such a sense of futility in their opponents that a European power like Portugal felt obliged to kick Pele out of the 1966 World Cup -- the one Brazil didn't win in those 12 years bound by the boy star in Sweden and the greatest of players he had grown into in Mexico 12 years later.

None of this is to question the extraordinary nature of Spain's achievement on Sunday.

It was a superb statement by Spain about the game's highest possibilities at the end of a tournament that had already given us much to remember, including the wonderful relish of the young Russian Alan Dzagoev, who left too early, the thrilling promise of the young Ukrainian playmaker Andriy Yarmolenko and ferocious competitors like Croatia and, before the Spanish onslaught, the Italy of Andrea Pirlo.

Spain's final performance put a seal on all of this that went beyond one nation's success.

It reminded us of the greatest possibilities of football when it is played with the passion and the intelligence and electric skill that we saw in the Olympic Stadium.

It also said that international football, which for so long has been seen to be sliding, in the mind of the players at least, beneath the weight and financial priorities of the club game, has been given a massive transfusion by the force and brilliance of La Roja.

It is still another reason to salute the masters of modern football, though not, we still have to say, at the cost of another kind of greatness -- the one which should always have the Black Pearl and his associates at its very heart. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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