Supreme Spain on a par with Pele's Brazil

From perennial underachievers to undoubted greats, Spain's transformation in the footballing world was completed on a magnificent night on Sunday.

The only debate that remains: Where do they stand among the historical giants of the sport?

A 4-0 demolition of Italy, that bastion of traditional counter-attacking football, in the Euro 2012 final made them the first nation to win three major titles in a row - the 2010 World Cup sandwiched between their 2008 and 2012 European triumphs.

The supreme achievement, punctuated by such an authoritative victory, vaults this Spanish team over every team of any era except one - Brazil's 1970 World Cup-winning team.

That was the team that gave fans the best version of samba football, Brazil's unique style of playing the game.

Notice the parallel among the two sides: Spain also gave the world their unique version of the game - tiki-taka football.

Brazil '70 was the culmination of stunning individual talents and the collective experience of winning the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

The central figure was, of course, Pele, who starred in all three World Cup triumphs. But he had brilliant teammates in 1970: Gerson, Tostao, Rivellino and Carlos Alberto, to name just a few.

Together, they mesmerised their opponents by slowly passing the ball around the midfield, waiting for the opportune moment to switch suddenly into gear and launch a swift attack at goal.

Sounds familiar? Indeed, that is also the basis of Spain's tiki-taka football.

However, the Spaniards have updated samba football by adding other potent ingredients: a little bit of Italian defensive organisation, a smatter of the Germans' tireless industry, and a large dose of Dutch Total Football, in which players interchange positions to exploit space to shoot and pass.

No other international team have come close to emulating such intricate football, and Spain have gleefully sprung to the top of the football world and stayed there since 2008.

Watching Sunday's jaw-droppingly one-sided final was like seeing the Spaniards rubbishing every criticism levelled against them during Euro 2012.

Boring football? They duly slammed four goals of the highest quality past an Italian side, who are still a stellar defensive team despite their recent infusion of attacking verve.

All the goals were manufactured through incisive passing and timed to perfection, slicing through the Italian back-four, with the scorer eluding their offside trap and giving goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon no chance of making saves.

How can this kind of football be labelled boring? It might not have worked well in the quarter- and semi-finals as Spain struggled to find goals, but it most definitely is a positive style that is never boring.

What about that accusation that Spain play negatively because they have no strikers in their starting line-up? Again, that was emphatically refuted in the final.

When players are given the green light to spring forward to attack from midfield - or even from the fullback position, as Jordi Alba's goal that gave Spain a 2-0 lead showed - there is little need for a traditional striker to be stationed around the penalty box.

Del Bosque's formation is fluid and, although substitute striker Fernando Torres' late entrance brought two more goals, it does not require a traditional striker to be successful.

So, out with the cynicism, and let us football fans rejoice in the fact that we are witnessing one of the greatest teams racking up one deserved trophy after another.

And one hopes that their brand of football can be incorporated into other national teams.

It is not an easy style of football. Constant harrying to win possession and then passing the ball around incisively require bags of endurance and confidence.

Spain infused this footballing philosophy into their players from young, and are reaping the rewards with a once-in-a-lifetime generation of players that has the mental fortitude to rise to the occasion.

We will eventually remember them by just single names, much like that Brazilian team from 1970: Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas, Torres and Casillas.

It is the highest form of tribute that fans use to identify the greatest teams. And Spain are undoubtedly deserving of all the accolades.

Now, it remains for them to remain as a great footballing nation for generations, winning regularly like what Brazil, Italy and Germany have managed through the past 80-odd years of World Cup football.

For they will be true giants of the sport then, and their initial years of underachievement will be forgotten amid glorious greatness.

hankeong@sph.com.sg


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