The Winner, and Still Champion
By JERÉ LONGMAN
KIEV, Ukraine — Confetti rained and fireworks exploded as Spain held aloft the championship trophy of Europe. If Sunday’s 4-0 rout of Italy did not fully illustrate that La Roja was untouchable, even against its fiercest opponents, defender Sergio Ramos made celebrative passes on the field with a matador’s cape.
Spain put on a masterly performance with inspired and skewering passes, impenetrable defense and collective brilliance unsurpassed in this golden period of international soccer. Or perhaps ever. Criticism that its tiki-taka style was dull appeared silly, fatuous.
Some had doubted Spain’s frequent choice to play without a traditional striker, as Coach Vicente Del Bosque preferred six midfielders. Everyone must complain about everything, Del Bosque had said, ignoring his critics.
On Sunday, his team attacked relentlessly and earned a victory that was as historic as it was dominant. Spain won its second consecutive European championship and third major title in a row, along with the 2010 World Cup. No team has held so many important trophies at once.
Befitting its unselfishness and depth, Spain’s four goals came from different players — David Silva in the 14th minute, Jordi Alba in the 41st, Fernando Torres in the 84th and Juan Mata in the 88th. For a 10th consecutive match in the knockout rounds, not a single goal was conceded. As usual, goalkeeper Iker Casillas was unfaltering. Now the debate will escalate: can Spain, with its attractive and generous style, rightfully be considered the greatest national team ever?
In various polls, the 1970 World Cup champion from Brazil, and its beautiful game played by Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Rivelino, has been widely considered No. 1. Some favor the Magnificent Magyars of Hungary in the early 1950s. Or the Total Football played by the Netherlands of the 1970s. Or the French team of Zinedine Zidane that won a World Cup in 1998 and a European title in 2000.
Spain will make its argument on the strength of its creativity, patience, resilience, underappreciated defense and commitment to the team over a period of years when solidarity might have fractured into arrogance and egotism.
“I think Spain deserves the compliment,” said United States Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a former star forward for Germany. “It speaks of outstanding class and the marriage of hunger and desire. To win the title, you need to be a total giver for your team. You need to be able to suffer through the difficult moments and to put your ego totally on the side. What they’ve shown in the past few years, now playing without a striker, is that they find ways to confuse, to create chances, to make everyone else look not capable. I think this is the team of the century.”
The completeness of Spain’s victory could be found in the sad, shocked faces of the Italians, who had been assured in defense in this tournament and newly ambitious in attack. This is a nation that has won four World Cups. Italy dared to attack on Sunday, but its players grew weary chasing the ball, as all teams do against Spain. And when the Azzurri were reduced to 10 men after a hamstring injury felled Thiago Motta in the 61st minute, with the score at 2-0, a revival became impossible.
“They completely dominated,” Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli said. “They really have made history, and deservedly so. They’ve been playing terrific football for a number of years. In spite of the fact they don’t play with a traditional striker, they still cause a lot of problems.”
Prandelli’s plan for Sunday was to close space in central midfield and win the ball. But from the opening whistle, Spain appeared much sharper with its short, geometric passing game than it had against the high pressure of Portugal in the semifinals.
In the 14th minute, Andrés Iniesta played a through pass to Cesc Fàbregas, who beat the struggling Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini to the end line. Fàbregas cut a pass back to the hurtling Silva, who headed the ball into the upper left corner, giving Spain a 1-0 lead.
An afterthought at the 2010 World Cup, Silva had since sought a more expanded role. On Sunday, he delivered the only goal necessary, completing a splendid year in which he also helped his club team, Manchester City, win its first English Premier League title in 44 years.
Chiellini soon limped off, apparently reinjuring a tender hamstring muscle that had kept him out of the quarterfinals against England. His replacement at left back, Federico Balzaretti, brought energy down the flank, but Italy could not produce a goal. And in the 41st minute, Spain scored again with searing speed and intent.
Alba made a short pass to Xavi Hernandez, the playmaker who some believed looked tired after a long season with Barcelona. But Xavi seemed fresh and alert on Sunday. His shot from the top of the penalty area flew just high in the 10th minute. A half-hour later, he received the pass from Alba and played it back to him with familiar exactness.
Gianluigi Buffon came rushing out of the Italian goal, but he was helpless as Alba sliced past two defenders in a furious sprint and scored his first international goal, putting Spain ahead, 2-0.
“We were superior,” Xavi said.
It was not yet halftime, and the match was slipping away for Italy. It fell beyond reach when Motta, the third and final substitute, left in the 61st minute, shortly after entering. The remainder of the game offered redemption for Torres, who scored the lone, winning goal for Spain in the final of Euro 2008, but whose career since has mostly gone unfulfilled. His goal Sunday made him the first player to score in two European finals.
“We won being true to our style,” Casillas said. “What we do is difficult, but we make it look easy.”
Not to mention historic.