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Jack: End of era for Spain - one of the greatest ever teams

Kristian Jack
6/18/2014 9:20:57 PM
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It is January 27, 2006 and UEFA's members are all gathered together in Switzerland for the draw of the 2008 European Championships.

For the draw that day Spain are placed in pot two and ranked by the co-efficients as the thirteenth best side in Europe.

They are given a group led by Sweden.

It is now the summer and the Spanish are in Germany for the World Cup. They never look like a power and are thrashed by France in the last 16.

Three months later a team featuring Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and Fernando Torres lose 3-2 to Northern Ireland.

A month later they are beaten 2-0 by Sweden, trailing for 80 minutes of the match.

Spain are nobodies on a track to a major tournament in third gear, preparing to fail once again at a major tournament.

Coach Luis Aragones thought differently. He saw the special players he had and demanded they change their style. It was the first seed that was planted that led to the losers becoming winners.

"Aragones changed our style, no longer regularly crossing from those wide areas. It was then when he decided to put his faith in the smaller players,' said midfielder Marcos Senna.

Spain made it to Euro 2008 and when David Villa scored a 92nd minute winner against the aforementioned Sweden in the group stages, people still didn't believe in their credentials.

'They always fail and will again' was the public sentiment.

It is June 22, 2008 and Spain's quarterfinal game against Italy has ended 0-0. Time for penalties. Their record from the spot in such scenarios was 2-4 in major tournaments. Losers again.

Cesc Fabregas, only 21, changed everything when he slotted home the winner that night in Vienna. Sure, Spain were delighted to win but the overriding emotion was relief. Relief that led to belief.

Russia, beaten already in the group stages, were easy opponents in the semifinal and then Germany were defeated 1-0 on a sublime pass from Xavi and a clinical finish from Torres.

From losers to winners inside two years.

Vicente Del Bosque took over from Aragones after Euro 2008.

"Some said it was the worst time to inherit the squad, it was the best," he would later say.

Now they were winners, under the guidance of the brilliant Del Bosque, Spain's integral players took over and their outstanding football brains became the difference.

At the 2010 World Cup they lost to Switzerland in the first game but as European champions they didn't think of themselves as flops.

David Villa and Andres Iniesta got them into the knock-out stages and against Portugal in the last 16, another tight game, one moment of brilliance was the difference.

Iniesta danced outside the box, saw a gap between the channels for Villa to run on to but it was a tad too slow. "I had seen the pass by Andres, meant for Villa, so I just backheeled it," Xavi would say.

Villa did the rest. 1-0 Spain. Helped by the brain of the master.

It would be 1-0 Spain again defeating Paraguay in the quarterfinals, a game that was far from easy and again won on the field and in the mind.

Iker Casillas saved a penalty from Oscar Cardozo but it was not on instinct. Spain's intelligence rose again. Casillas recapping the game said; "Pepe (Reina, backup goalie) is obsessed with how the opposition takes penalties, with his help I knew he would go that way."

Reina added: 'Cardozo, in tight matches, always went to his safe side."

Spain would win 1-0, again led by Iniesta and finished by Villa, to finally get beyond the quarterfinals. Through their brilliance on the field and their preparation off it they were knocking down barriers past Spanish teams fell over.

"We broke old ways of thinking (that day), that we were inferior to others," said Del Bosque.

The semifinal against Germany was equally as tight. Spain controlled the game, showed Germany what they needed to do to improve, but they still couldn't score.

Xavi recalled: "At half-time Puyol said we had taken three or four corners already and said if you put it near the penalty spot, then we could cause problems."

In the 73rd minute at Durban that day, Xavi produced another stunning assist in a major game, and Puyol did exactly what he said. 1-0 Spain. Another victory won by their brilliance on and off the pitch.

By now Spain were easily the best team in the world. They just needed a game to prove it. And 116 minutes.

Iniesta, fittingly, delivered the knock out punch and Spain were champions of the world. They had conceded fewer goals than any previous winner. They had changed the game and set the standard.

Since losing to Sweden almost four years earlier they had trailed just five times, none more than 46 minutes, losing just once to Switzerland.

Qualifying for Euro 2012 was much the same. They went down a goal to the Czechs but came from behind to win, as they always did. They were huge favourites for Euro 2012 despite star striker Villa being ruled out injured.

Del Bosque used it as an opportunity to try something new. The great innovators, who were being copied by everyone - after all, winners are always imitated - were changing their identity again. Fabregas, as a false nine, scored three minutes after Italy opened the scoring in the first game and Spain would never trail again. The false nine gave them great mobility, dropped deep, controlled the space, and stopped the opposition starting transitions.

France were destroyed in the quarters, and then came another tight game with Portugal. 0-0, time for penalties.

Del Bosque recalls the moment as 'easy' as many of his players wanted to take one. "We made one late switch, replacing Iniesta's order with Fabregas, because he wanted to take the last one, remembering four years earlier."

Intelligence once again coming to the fore. Fabregas scored the final penalty and Spain went on to crush Italy in the final, again with Xavi starring with two more brilliant assists in a monumental match.

Spain were accused of being boring throughout that tournament but this team was a team to watch with a smile on your face; not with frustration. They had made something very difficult look easy, had produced ball treasurers and space invaders that forced their opponents to re-think their own styles.

Major tournaments like the World Cup care little for reputations; they create them. And in a knock-out tournament, where one game, one mistake, one decision can change a game it was Spain that dominated three of them in a row. During that, they not only changed their own reputations but they changed how the game was played.

A decade before their success it was thought that players below six feet tall were not strong enough to deal with physical demands of the direct play that was so evident in the modern game. Then came the little masters from Spain.

Their place in football history is secure. Yes, they were successful but they were also pioneers led by true footballing greats.

Greats like Iker Casillas, a magnificent goalkeeper and captain who united a team divided by Barcelona and Real Madrid and no longer tolerated the antics that held the team back.

Greats like Carles Puyol, a man who was never physically gifted to play at the highest level of his profession but who was a winner and who read the game brilliantly.

Greats like Xavi Hernandez, simply one of the best players to play the game, and arguably the best player Spain has ever produced. The true conductor of the orchestra, the cleverest of all of midfielders, whose tactical awareness and vision we should talk about for the rest of our lives.

Indeed, it isn't just Xavi that we should recount stories about. We are key witnesses; the guardians of history and in years to come will often be able to tell generations to follow just how this Spain team were.

That book closed on a raucous night at the Maracana on Tuesday. It was not the death of tika-taka, far from it, instead it was simply the end of a team that's core players struggled to still play together. Many of their core players were off form and they were not a team built to play from behind against talented teams.

From that loss in Sweden in 2006 to the start of this World Cup, the World and European champions had trailed in just seven of 54 competitive matches, winning 47 of them and losing just once. Chasing a game against a top side, their pivot of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso struggled for the second straight game. Casillas, past his prime and not sharp could do nothing. Xavi, dropped, watching on the bench was powerless. It was a sad ending to a wonderful chapter in the sport.

Sure, Spain will come again. At 30, Iniesta must surely delight many a neutral who desires to see him play in another World Cup, and legitimate world class players like Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets and David Silva will not be going anywhere. They will be joined by many young stars that they have coming and it will not surprise anyone to see this team win another major tournament in the next decade.

However, they'll never be like they were. Our parents had Brazil 1958-1970 and we had Spain 2008-14.

We should never forget them.



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