La Roja's Euro 2012 win hardly seemed possible five years ago, but hard work, dedication and some difficult decisions have brought unprecedented success - and it's not over yet
"We have already made history," Cesc Fabregas told the press in Ukraine late last week. "This," he added, "is something else." In victory or defeat against Italy on Sunday, La Roja's legacy would remain intact. As Pep Guardiola had said to his players before the start of extra time in the final of the Club World Cup final against Estudiantes in 2009: "Lose, and you will still be the best; win and you will be eternal."
Having won Euro 2012 with an exhibition in flowing football on Sunday, Spain can now lay claim to being eternal.
No team in the history of international football had ever won three titles in succession. Not Brazil, not Germany, nor Italy - nobody. Now Spain have. Their rise has been as meteoric as it has been improbable. Put it to a Spain supporter five years ago that they could claim just one of those prizes and their reply would have been optimistic at best. Thoughts of winning all three would have seemed beyond the realms of fantasy.
But that's exactly where they are now.
The last time La Roja lost a knockout game in major competitions was when they went down to France in the second round of the 2006 World Cup. Before the tournament, coach Luis Aragones had promised to return with the World Cup or resign. He did neither, but the painful loss in Hannover helped Spain to find much-needed perspective: in order to hit the heights, they first had to suffer the lows.
There's method behind the magic. In terms of pace, power and aerial ability, Spain simply did not possess the players to compete in high-tempo, physical games. When it mattered most, the men in red found themselves coming off second best in such situations - they had to play to their strengths. So although short in stature, Aragones believed his ball-playing midfielders could outclass opponents with talent and technique. And he was right.
Difficult decisions were made, not least the removal of Raul. When confronted by a journalist over the forward's extended exclusion, Aragones angrily answered: "How many World Cups has Raul been to? Three. And how many Euros has he been to? Two. And how many have we won?"
That third question needed no reply. The answer was known; it was none. And although not necessarily the fault of Raul, fantastic footballer and committed captain that he was, his presence was hardly helping.
More significantly, perhaps, Spain now had both style, in the shape of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas et al - and they had substance: Aragones chose Brazilian-born Marcos Senna in the holding role, while the more technical talents were charged with creating chances for the strikers. It was simple, yet extremely effective. Hard work, dedication and difficult decisions brought the success that Spain had longed for since 1964 - but only after blood, sweat and plenty of tears. Indeed, such was the continual disappointment of La Roja in major competitions that one of the winning players from Euro 1964 admitted in an interview he had forgotten they were champions at all, according to El Pais, briefly believing that the 2008 success had been the country's first at international level.
Despite victory in Austria and Switzerland, Aragones stepped down as coach and Vicente del Bosque assumed control. And the arrival of the former Real Madrid coach coincided with the emergence of Guardiola's spectacular side at Barcelona. At Euro 2008, only three players from the Catalan club had featured; in the 2010 World Cup, there were eight.
The transition was smooth.
Del Bosque led La Roja to glory in South Africa with a team somewhere between the previous Spain side and the Barca outfit dominating the game at home and in Europe. Each has been better than the previous one and another two years on, Spain saved the very best until last as they brushed away the Azzurri - and their critics - with a peerless performance in Kiev on Sunday as they ran out 4-0 winners.
Now considered by many to be the finest footballing force in the history of the international game, the circle is complete. The cycle, however, may not be, with the triple title winners to take a still-young and ultra-successful side to Brazil in two years' time as they aspire to make it four in a row with victory at the 2014 World Cup.
As Cesc claimed ahead of this latest triumph, that would be "something else" altogether. And to paraphrase Pep, albeit with a slight twist: Win in South America and La Roja will still be the best; lose and Spain will remain eternal. Aragones, Del Bosque and this golden generation of footballers have seen to that.
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