Spain 2008-2012 – the greatest football team ever?

I love Spain. I love Spanish food. I love Spanish wine. Andalucía is my holiday destination of choice. And I love Spanish football. It’s a love founded on watching Barcelona on Eurosport with my dad in 1996 when I was 17, when Ronaldo, 20 years old, scored 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, was unstoppable, unplayable, as good a goalscorer as he’d ever be plus, pre-injuries and thickening-out of his physical frame, was as fast as a whippet and possessed of such sublime touch, poise, and balance that I didn’t think there’d ever be a better footballer. (A decade later, of course, Messi came along.)

So I was pleased last night when they won a third consecutive major international football tournament, and made history by doing so. And I was more than pleased – delighted, in fact – that they won it in such style, by a record margin, by sticking to their ideology, by playing football the best way there is to play it; the way my brother taught me to play when I was a kid, which is by repeating the same three words over and over again. “Pass and move, pass and move, pass and move.”

I’m fed-up of English football, of the hustle and bustle of the premiership, of the unfathomable amounts of cash lashed around on players’ wages, on TV rights, on tickets for games, on Bentleys and Range Rovers and Lamborghinis. I’m fed up of Steven Gerrard being our best footballer when he’s a one-dimensional presence on the pitch in terms of imagination, going for the match-winning “ego pass” every time, whether it’s appropriate or not, possession and control of a game sacrificed for the vaguest glimpse of a chance of personal glory.

I’m fed up of John Terry and Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney and all the other “role models” chasing after money, and models, and loose balls. Even the one young player we have who might point towards footballing sophistication, Jack Wilshere, is in danger of becoming a spitting, brawling thug. I’m fed up of the empty, worthless, hollow spectacle of it. I refuse to pay for it, and my engagement with it stops at Match of the Day and taking part in a fantasy football league for camaraderie’s sake at work. I’m fed up of the way the speed and “passion” and spectacle of the English premiership has infantilised its supporters to the extent that they accuse the Spanish team of being boring because they’re not running around like headless chickens.

Fabregas sums it up well: “Those people who think we are playing boring, in my opinion, don’t understand the game.” Possession is everything for the Spanish; it’s how they attack, how they defend, how they control a game. The way they probe an area and a set of players, looking for weaknesses, finding nothing to exploit right now, and move to another area and set of players, from rightwing to leftwing to the D and back again, until they do find something to exploit, until a chink appears in the armour, is fascinating and remarkable and betrays an understanding of the game that is so far above England’s that it makes us look like cavemen. No current English player would get in this Spanish squad. None of them would even get near it. We don’t understand what it is that they do, even though it’s incredibly simple and logical and obvious.

The Spanish achievement is remarkable, and pretty much cements their place as the greatest international football team the world has ever seen. I’ve researched the 1954 Hungarian team of Puskás and Kocsis and Bozsik and Hidegtuki, read books about them and watched as much footage as possible (I bought the 1960 Real Madrid European Cup final victory DVD, just so I could see Puskás play a full 90-minutes). I’ve watched huge amounts of footage of Cruyff’s Holland team from 1974 and the 1970 Brazil team. I remember the Germany of Brehme and Matthäus and Klinsmann. I watched France win the World cup in 1998 and then take Euro 2000, too, and thought that was incredible. But Spain eclipsed all of them last night.

Of course Italy were beset by bad luck: Chiellini looked like a terrific outlet for them for the first 20 minutes until he was injured; De Rossi has clearly been less than fit through the tournament; Cassano, with his awesome balance and touch and vision, is only a few months out from heart-surgery. When Motta pulled his hamstring within moments of coming on, and had to be carried off the pitch, unable to continue and leaving Italy a man down against the best team the world has ever seen, there was never going to be any way back. Italy actually played nearly as much football as Spain last night, it just wasn’t as good.

But let’s not forget that Spain won last night, and over the last three weeks, without Puyol, their greatest defender, or Villa, their record goalscorer, with Torres only just nearing the light at the end of a torrid two-year tunnel. If anyone mentions exhaustion on behalf of the Italians, the Spanish players have collectively played 17,000 more minutes of football this season than the Italians. But it’s always, always easier to run with the ball or for the ball than it is to run after it, which is what Spain make their opponents do.

The success of Spain’s “tiki-taka” approach to football, which Luis Aragonés arrived at as a pragmatic decision because his players weren’t physically strong enough to out-muscle opponents, is a massive tactical and ideological victory for the beautiful game as far as I’m concerned. English fans crow about passion and commitment and sacrifice as if Xavi and Ramos and their kin don’t care about playing for their country or about winning trophies, but thinking about what you’re doing and working out the best way to win suggests that, in fact, you care a great deal. Enough to do a job properly.

Seeing Italy and Germany move towards this approach, and the cusp of success, ought to suggest that we’re doing something wrong in this country. A complete re-evaluation of how we understand, coach, and play football is going to be necessary if England are going to challenge these nations seriously, because, clearly, just having committed, talented players who care enough to physically bleed for their country isn’t enough. We need them to be clever and skilful, too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take more pleasure and joy in watching Spain win beautifully and intelligently, than in watching England haplessly falter.

¡Viva España!

Edit. Oh, and the useless, witless idiots in certain sections of the British media (generally those owned by Australians) who are crowing about how the Spanish success last night was down to premiership players, can go to hell.

3 responses to “Spain 2008-2012 – the greatest football team ever?

  1. Pingback: Spain 2008-2012 – the greatest football team ever? | Sick Mouthy « Spain Football News

  2. Samuel (a hoy hoy)

    A great article Nick but a couple things that ring false about this:

    Spanish football has had its fill of footballers more concerned about wealth and fawning ladies as English football has. In fact one of the biggest concerns and downfalls of Barcelona this year has been Pique not caring about anything but ol’ Shakz. You could also attribute the rise in wealth and fame as to why Spanish youngsters in the 00-05 generation didn’t do what they are doing now – despite having nearly the same amount of talent. Mendieta, Raul, Morientes, Reyes and Baraja were all known dicks while Real and Barca had their fill of talented foreigners with attitude problems over homegrown talent, from Saviola to Riquelme, from Ronaldo to Cassano etc. etc. etc. etc.

    But also, much of the change has been about 1 major club changing its philosphy and having the players and the money to back it up. Not often can a club replace Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Milito and Deco with Cesc, Villa, Pique and Pedro to build a mostly one-nation, one-club (Cesc, Pique, Pedro, Busquiets, Thiago, Xavi, Iniesta, Valdes, Puyol all from the same acadamy). Being the one club plus two or three players gives them a massive advantage no-one else can have. But are we really that far from someone else pulling that trigger? Both AC and Ajax could do it in the 90s. Just because Mark Lawrenson doesn’t understand the game doesn’t mean Liam Brady or Warren Joyce aren’t changing the way the England team’s technical ability while others look in the other direction.

    Also Ashley Cole would make any team in the world. And considering he played in the second greatest technical team of the past decade, winning a boat-load of trophies and has just recently won the Champions League for the first time, it seems unfair to say: “No current English player would get in this Spanish squad. None of them would even get near it. We don’t understand what it is that they do, even though it’s incredibly simple and logical and obvious.” Cole understands how they play. He used to be the Dani Alves to Robert Pires’s Leo Messi. He also nullified that game over two legs not so long ago. And although yes, they wouldn’t currently make the team, Welbeck, Cleverly, Rio, Baines, Wilshere, AOC, Walcott, Walker, Richards and most obviously Carrick understand how their football works. Just because the Rooney’s and Stevie G’s (and on a more harmful scale – the SWPs and co) of the English game work on passion and spirit, doesn’t mean that tactical awareness and technique are always beaten by gameladness.

    My last problem is the assumption that people find Spain boring because they don’t understand control. This is a complete misnomer. The bureaucratic ideal of control is the problem, similar to the cliche about the Italians. I read, pre-final, that Spain had 55 passes to every 1 shot. The teams of 2008 had 30-odd and the 2010 had 40-odd. There comes a point where the ambition falls away, and with it any drama or romance. Especially as they are prone to winning the ball back quickly. Especially as players like Silva and Fabregas are so quick to spot a decisive, match winning pass. They aren’t playing to their match winning abilities. They seem scared to play through balls, which we know they can do, or shoot on sight, despite knowing they can score through fear of losing concentration or possession. It is like watching a friend pine over a girl you know he can have, but being too afraid to ask her out and having to be her friend she goes to whenever she has a problem, only decreasing his chances of ever being a lover. The control-as-all-defensive-proposition has gone from mind-boggling to understandable to frustrating to boring. It just has. You just can’t fall in love with them, and any gesture they eventually do make comes when you are just left as slightly awkward friends.

  3. All good points. I guess, getting the vast bulk of my football coverage from 5Live, Match of the Day, and The Guardian (plus online chat), that I’m removed from the idiotic antics of Pique regarding Shakira, etc (I didn’t realise the scale of that until v.recently), but still feel like the John Terrys of this world manage to infect everything with their craptitude. The media is culpable for that for the most part.

    The question needs to be asked why a British club hasn’t made (or can’t make) the steps that Barcelona have, and the answer seems to be that the big clubs in the UK appear to be run appallingly shoddily – headlines over the last 24 hours regarding Man Utd, Rangers, and Robin Van Persie lend weight to that. (Not that clubs abroad aren’t run appallingly shoddily too – hello Serie A, hello Real Madrid using the city’s resources as an overdraft) What’s the cultural difference that makes Barcelona able to operate like that, but which prevents Man Utd? I know you hate the “more than a club” philosophy and see it as arrogance, but it’s infinitely preferable to the “just a business” ethos that seems to drive the Glazers and, in a different way, Arsenal (one operating like crazy venture capitalists taking huge unethical risks, the other petrified of overspend).

    You’re right about Ashley Cole, to be fair, but I still don’t think he’d get in the Spanish team, just because Jordi Alba is 9 years younger and, I think, almost as good (whether he’s as tight defensively as Cole is difficult to judge; Spain were certainly tighter defensively than England).

    The 55-passes-to-a-shot thing is, I think, a bit of a red herring, in that I consider it a pragmatic response to Villa’s absence and Torres’ recent spell of low morale. Had either of them been (more) available, than I’m sure Silva and Fabregas would have been playing through-balls much more often, and movement upfront would have been different.

    One thing I think we’re both guilty of is universalising subjective opinions, though; I did fall in love with the Spanish (or maintained that love), while you didn’t (or drifted out of it), is the be-all-and-end-all, possibly.

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