Spain look to create history in their own style


GROUP C SPAIN v ITALYFIVE MINUTES and 14 seconds changed football history. That was the time that elapsed between the first penalty in the shootout, taken by David Villa, and the last penalty, taken by Cesc Fabregas. Five minutes and 14 seconds; a hundred years, gone.

Spain meet Italy in the PGE Arena in Gdansk in their opening game at Euro 2012 tomorrow; the last time they met, at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna four years ago, something shifted. Maybe even for good.

Back then, Spain wanted to break history. Now the favourites can make it. No other country has ever won three consecutive tournaments. The mentality, the atmosphere, has been utterly transformed. Everywhere you look, the same phrase: no hay dos sin tres. There’s no two without three. After the European Championships and the World Cup, after two triumphs, inevitably comes the third. Spain’s official tournament song, sung by David Bisbal, even takes that as its title.

Luis Aragones chose Fabregas as his fifth penalty taker because, he said, he was mature beyond his years, tough: anyone who can become captain of Arsenal at 19 can be entrusted with a moment like that. It was some moment. The quarter-final. On June 22nd. On penalties. And against Italy.

The quarter-final was the hurdle at which they always stumbled: Spain had not reached a semi-final in 24 years, on each of the three previous times they had played on June 22nd they had gone out on penalties, and Italy were the team they love to hate: boring, cynical, dirty, successful Italy. World champions. The team that they had faced five times in major tournaments and never beaten.

The Spanish feared the worst ahead of that game. But a jinx takes a lifetime to build and can be destroyed in a moment. Spain scored four penalties – Villa, Santi Cazorla, Marcos Senna, and Fabregas scored, Daniel Guiza did not – and Iker Casillas saved from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale.

Suddenly, the fatalism was gone, the complex, the fear. Belief flooded into the Spanish. “The country that gave us Don Quixote,” wrote the Argentinian World Cup winner Jorge Valdano, “now sees that those Italians are not giants at all but windmills.” In Xabi Alonso’s words, June 22nd 2008 was a “liberation” – the first day of the rest of their lives – and that night “we celebrated as much, or more, than after the final”.

Never mind that it was a quarter-final, or that it was won on penalties, never mind that Russia and Germany were still to come, Fernando Torres says that was the night Spain won the European Championships. And he says that despite being the man who scored the winning goal in the final itself.

Luis Aragones had always insisted upon the significance of knowing how to compete. In Vienna, Spain had outcompeted the ultimate competitors. That was not the only thing that he had changed. Asked recently about the key decisions that made Spain what they are now, he said there were two. First, getting rid of the egos. Second, imposing a style. It came to be known as tiki-taka. The phrase was originally dreamed up by Javier Clemente – as a criticism, a sneer at sterile short-passing and possession. Not any more.

The penalty shootout win against Italy was hardly tiki-taka. And, in fact, Spain’s first-round victories had not been either. Of Spain’s first six goals, five came from a break, one from a set-play. But the building blocks were there, the structure and style. Before the tournament, Aragones had kept an especially close eye on Xavi: he would be Spain’s architect. His goal against Russia in the semi-final was the perfect expression of what Aragones had tried to impose. The coach insisted that playing the short passing style was the only logical approach with Spain’s players. It was pragmatic, he said.

But pragmatism is usually presented in different terms and tiki-taka did not seem so pragmatic. Questions were being asked, criticisms made.

By beating Italy, Spain believed in the new identity. When it came to Russia and Germany there was now no doubt. Victory reinforced it and the World Cup would later remove any doubts. The style was right: you can win playing like this. Xavi was named the player of the tournament by Uefa. Pep Guardiola took over at Barcelona and told him that he was fundamental to his plans. Since then, every season he has been in the middle of the midfield of the team that has won the most important football competition on the planet: the European championships in 2008, the European Cup in 2009, the World Cup in 2010, the European Cup in 2011.

There are parallels this season, questions being raised against the style, the idea. Chelsea’s European Cup success has raised the possibility of a best before date on tiki-taka. Has it been “found out“?

Then there is the accusation that it is boring. But tiki-taka is not just about creativity but about control, about anaesthesia as much as aesthetics.

No one in the Spain set up believes that they are guaranteed to win – no style ever guarantees victory; losing happens – and they are aware of their problems. Vicente Del Bosque has described the injured Carles Puyol and David Villa as “irreplaceable” and fatigue is certainly an issue.

On average, Spain’s players have played eight games more than their Italian counterparts this season.

But none of that is necessarily resolved by changing styles or philosophies. Del Bosque says that a team is “defined” by its central midfielders: Spain’s wealth of technique there is astonishing. “We found a style when we arrived,” says Del Bosque, “and it will be the same style when we go.” He is aware of the limitations, seeking to add variety to Spain’s approach: he talks of width and of stretching the pitch wherever possible, but he admits that defensive solidity, via possession and pressing in the opposition’s half, is the foundation.

The style, he says, is non-negotiable. And why would it be? Spain have seen that this way they can win. And they did not win any other way.

Now they are faced by the chance to achieve something that no national team has achieved. Ever.

Guardian Service