Had you entered any given bar in the Spanish heartlands on the 6th of September 2006 and declared that not only would Spain qualify for Euro 2008 in pole position, but also win the entire tournament, then your reception would have ranged from silent incredulity to laughter, and maybe even outright violence. And had you then confessed your undying love and respect for Luis Aragonés, the violence might just have turned non-negotiable.
But you'd have been right. Just under two years after your eventful evening in the taverna on the night in which Spain lost 3-2 to Northern Ireland, La Furia Roja hoisted aloft the European Championship trophy in Vienna after not only beating but absolutely dominating Germany in the Euro 2008 final. Your man Luis Aragonés would probably be a bit too self-involved to throw you a conspiratorial wink, though.
Yet who can blame him? The manager has weathered so many storms during his tenure as Spain boss, and even before. He'd bossed no fewer than nine clubs in thirteen spells - including four separate tenures at his beloved Atlético Madrid - en route to the Furia Roja hotseat, and things were to grow no less eventful from that point on.
Long Road To Glory
Taking over in 2004, Aragonés inherited a sullen, dispirited squad that had so laboured under Iñaki Sáez... and failed to change much. At least initially that was the case: only in lethargic and unconvincing style did they reach the World Cup of 2006, and although they enjoyed a tremendous group stage campaign they were nonetheless eliminated at the hands of France in the first knockout stage.
Then came Euro 2008 qualification, and a continuation of problems. A 4-0 win over Liechtenstein was merely expected: a 2-0 defeat to Sweden, and then that unbearably humiliating night at Windsor Park, were not. Aragonés' head was on the chopping block.
Yet somehow he attained a stay of execution, and from there led Spain to group leadership and qualification. And then some: taking the latter nine games of that campaign into account, and adding six friendlies and six Euro 2008 matches, Spain have now gone 21 games unbeaten.
But it was far from easy. During this time the likes of Latvia looked to be more than the equal of Casillas and company; Iceland might have deemed themselves unlucky only to have drawn. In other words, even when Aragonés side is doing well, it tends to do it the hard way, with tactical tinkering often the order of the day. No wonder, then, he struggled to win admirers.
The Captain's Table
And then there's Raúl. A huge campaign both within Spain and without gathered speed this year with the aim of seeing the Real Madrid man recalled to the side that he last vacated shortly after that fateful evening in Belfast. Looking a bit closer to home, all those Goal.com editorial staff who selected their own Spain squads for Euro 2008 included the blanco captain in their ideal 23, as did many of our readers.
Aragonés was having none of it, though, and ultimately he was vindicated as his Spain side, fresh from the boos and whistles of a stop-start qualification campaign, made their peace with the outside world and focused on themselves. No Raúl, no drama, no problem - that seemed to be the motto. After all, rumours abounded that Raúl was a domineering influence in the dressing room, and in Aragonés' world there's room for only one of those - himself - and off he went. Never mind the television personalities dressing up as Raúl and confronting you outside the training ground. Never mind the phone-ins and the editorials. His way, or the highway. It was not popular...
... yet it worked, and so did his management style. Whether it was down to the absence of Raúl, the spectre of failure, or a bunker mentality effected by an experienced man-manager, this Spanish squad to all appearances was more close-knit than any that's come before it since the 1980s. A good atmosphere is vital to a good tournament - this becoming clearer and clearer by the second as established names fell by the wayside - and Aragonés seemed to make it work. Yes, Fernando Torres was visibly angry during the first of his many (many, many) substitutions, yet the incident was resolved. Other players, not least Cesc Fàbregas, came out to say that while they were disappointed at being benched, they accepted the coach's decision. Above all else, it seemed that they meant it: Aragonés' decision was not only feared as a law, but respected as a father's.
Still, with paternalism comes father-knows-best moralism. Aragonés some what passive-aggressively announced prior to the final that his mind was made up to quit after the tournament because Spain hadn't done enough to keep him. He was not referring only to the football association, but the country as a whole - how dare they turn on him?! After all, hadn't he got them this far? And they doubted him... Well, yes - one might respond - but let's forget that it was not only Spain that didn't do much to keep Luis, but they also did not get rid of him when he and they were at their lowest ebb. Perhaps the debt of gratitude is mutual. No doubt Luis would disagree.
Indeed, despite his self-regard one cannot share it by forgiving all of his his transgressions. The despicable racism issued in the direction of Thierry Henry was notable not only for its frankness but also the fact that he offered only a smirking, pseudo-apology in response. Despite all he's accomplished, this sorry incident will forever sour his reputation in the eyes of most right-thinking fans.
Not that Luis would care. After all, he didn't get where he is today by fretting over complaints. And as he reflects on his achievements tonight, he may well enjoy a self-congratulatory smile and declare himself once and for all vindicated - on the pitch, at least.
Ewan Macdonald, Goal.com