There was an odd news story today. England have risen two places to fourth in the FIFA world rankings. That’s England, knocked out in the quarter finals, outclassed in normal time, by Italy – now sixth. Suggests the rankings don’t rank the games that matter highly enough. Spain are first of course, Germany – beaten by Italy in the semi finals – second. Bizarrely, Brazil are eleventh!
So, in the end, the team that everyone in their heart of hearts knew was the best, won. But I, with many others, thought Germany might do it, with their strength, speed and ability to keep possession (unlike England). And that audacity. (See my Sportsthoughts 30). So I got that one wrong! In the semi against Italy, they lost their audacity, their confidence, after the Azzurri hit them with two outstanding goals, both scored by Mario Balotelli. Super Mario rather than stupid Mario. The first engineered by a wonderful piece of skill and cross by Cassano and finished with a perfectly timed header by Balotelli. The second a superb long ball – Route 1 – by Montolivo, which super Mario gathered, looking wildly offside (he wasn’t), before he absolutely wellied it into the top right corner of the German goal. Neuer had no chance. Immense!
Then Italy wove their web around the Germans and from time to time broke and struck at the heart of their defence. It could have been 3 or 4 nil. Germany never really sparked. They had chances and got one back with a penalty right at the end. But that verve, audacity, deserted them when it mattered. Were they cowed by that history of not beating Italy in tournament games, which dates back to the fifties? Surely not, but something went wrong. Maybe Schweinsteiger being only semi-fit contributed.
But well done Italy, 2-1 winners. And Andrea Pirlo became the darling of the tournament. Forever breaking free of those who would shackle him, spraying his passes with unerring accuracy around the field, short and long. The Maestro. Until the Final.
The other semi went to plan (just), with Spain beating Portugal, after a 0-0 game, through penalties. And Portugal had their chances to win. Ronaldo’s radar wasn’t quite functioning. All his shots cleared the bar with some ease. Is there no-one in that team who can say, you’ve blown three free kicks, let me have a go? Seems not. And then in penalties, he was left with the fifth penalty, the potential crowning glory. Unfortunately for Portugal they were already beaten by then, 4-2. Ronnie stood there deflated, not used. Cock-up!
The most ridiculous thing of all in this tournament though, was the idea, increasingly perpetrated in the media, that Spain were BORING. All that passing to players on your own team, that confidence in possession: BORING. Even Arsene Wenger chipped in, suggesting that Spain were now using possession to deny other teams attacks, as opposed to mounting their own. You have to respect Arsene’s analysis (though he might be a little bitter about Arsenal losing to Barcelona) but surely the issue is that most national teams are so scared of Spain, that they sit in deep defence, hoping to muster a break. So the onus is all on Spain to make the match exciting. Spain: so good they’re boring. Que?
Anyway, they dealt with that in the final. They upped the pace a little, played the passes a little more forward, acute. Cut Italy to pieces. Two outstanding goals in the first half (just like Italy against Germany). The first an Iniesta/Fabregas creation with Silva placing a cute header into the top of the goal. Pure reaction on his part. The second an amazing sprint by full back Jordi Alba, a perfect ball into his path by Xavi, finished with precision. Perfect football. The game in the second half dropped in intensity. Italy couldn’t get back into it and used their three subs so early that when one of them, Motta, went down with a hamstring injury, they were reduced to ten. Two of Spain’s subs, Torres and then Mata, finished them off in the last minutes. Lovely for Juan Mata. First appearance in the tournament. Goal. Something to treasure. And that’s how good Spain are: Juan Mata can hardly ever get on the pitch. Tell that to Chelsea!
Another odd thing. Fernando Torres, who I think only started one game, who played fifteen minutes in the final, won the golden boot, traditionally awarded to top scorer. This time a whole raft of players scored three. Players like Gomez of Germany, of whom much was expected, fell away. So Torres, coming on late, sneaking another goal and making the pass for Mata’s goal, got it on assists and minimal time spent on the pitch. Another formula -based decision, like the FIFA world rankings. Another one that just doesn’t feel right. Better surely just to share the award – or give it to the player who played the most minutes, not the least.
Anyway, Spain 4 Italy 0 said it all. This is a supreme team. with its infinitely flexible midfield and forwards. It’s not 4-6-0, it’s 4-3-3. But different players move into the positions, around an axis of Xavi. He may not have sparkled so much in this tournament, but he is still fundamental. Behind him Xabi Alonso and Busquets sweep up everything, in front Fabregas, Silva and Iniesta buzz , probe and eventually strike. And in this tournament it was Iniesta, more than anyone, who provided the incision, the creativity. Every match he got better, more influential, as the game progressed. A magician… and an incredibly hard worker. Every player in the Spanish team is grounded. They put in their shift. Pressing when without the ball, making space with their runs when they have it. The complete team. Boring? Never. A masterclass in football.
So, after accusing them of being boring, the media flipped and asked, are they the best team in the world ever, having won two Euros and a World Cup in succession? Most of us of a certain age recoil, and say, surely Brazil 1970 are still the best ever. But how do you compare them, when the game has changed so much? Brazil were certainly the most exciting, but this Spanish team might well destroy them, as defence wasn’t their forte. Hey, whatever, let’s say they were the best two, and ignore those who look even further back and cite Brazil 58 or Hungary 53.
Let’s just say that it is a privilege to watch this Spanish team weave their patterns, and look forward to the next clash of cultures at the World Cup in Brazil, 2014. Euro 2012 has been a brilliant tournament. One of the best ever. Brazil 2014 is going to rock!