For those who have followed the failures of La Seleccion over the years, it is difficult not to reserve a vestige of oneself for a potentially heart-wrenching disappointment. Countless times, promising Spanish national sides have failed to live up to their talent, much less the hype surrounding them. Many a Spaniard is accustomed to being let down by his or her idols as missed penalties and lacklustre performances have, time and again, led to premature exits from the illustrious European and World stages—most bow outs occurring invariably in the dreaded quarter-finals. After being handed a frustrating defeat to France in the latest 2006 World Cup, it seemed yet another generation of Spain’s best, teeming with talent, was going to be destined to underachieve.
For so long, Spain seemed a team pathologically inclined to reward its country with nothing more than high hopes—this only makes La Seleccion’s hot run of form since their last World Cup exit that much more remarkable. Since that disappointing summer and the subsequently lamentable dropping of the iconic Raul and other veteran players from Luis Aragones’ side, Spain has truly lived up to the namesake, La Furia Roja.
This past summer in the European Championships, Spain once again were able to put forth a promising showing in the group stages, albeit luck also seemed to be on their side: two of their wins against Sweden and Greece came in somewhat miraculous fashion with goals from David Villa in the 92nd minute, and Dani Guiza in the 88th minute, respectively. It was not until they beat fellow European giants Italy in the knockout phase that the quarter-final curse was finally broken and the country began to believe in its side again.
That win was pivotal, not only because of the victory itself, but because the manner in which the match was won—the dreaded penalty shootout. Iker Casillas would show his merit in wearing the captain’s armband by saving two shots from the spot, while Cesc Fabregas, a symbol of the youth movement that has invigorated the Spanish national side since Aragones’ ambitious reorganization of the squad, would slot home the winning penalty. High on their new-found confidence, Spain would go on to beat Russia handily in the semi-finals and finally vindicate the Spanish nation with a fantastic win against Germany to take home the trophy. This Spanish side seemed determined to break with tradition and instead bring about a new age of Spanish football—one of that would establish a standard for success.
In all, La Seleccion have not lost since September of 2006 in any competition—a whopping 31 straight matches without suffering defeat—and a far cry from the inconsistent side that always wavered under the weight of pressure. Even more to their credit, while most national sides would stumble under the direction of new leadership, this Spanish team only seems to have gotten stronger under new coach Vicente del Bosque
But why the change? What has pulled La Roja out of the mire of mediocrity? How were Aragones and Del Bosque able to break the trend of high expectations but dependable defeats that now have even the harshest of Spanish commentators and analysts feeling their foreheads as they slowly succumb to La Roja fever?
What seems to separate this Spanish side from the underachieving teams of the past is what Spanish fans love most in their football: style. La Seleccion have developed a brand of football unique to their country—an attractive style of balanced team play showcasing one-touch passing and tightly positioned triangles that allow for the ball to be knocked around the pitch with ease. Featuring a youthful side that exemplifies the technical prowess of the Spanish game, La Seleccion have patented their football much in the same way Brazil have staked their claim to the flicks and flourishes of Samba football.
In Spain, football is much more an expression of culture than in other countries and Spanish fans demand that their team not only win, but also do so beautifully. Although La Roja probably deserved to put more than one goal past Turkey at the Bernabeu, one only had to listen to the crowd during the match to understand just how happy Spaniards have become in believing in their team again. The chants of ‘Ole’ were loud and aplenty accompanying each pass—and sometimes even the crowd’s chants are unable to keep pace with the accurate passing.
Yesterday in Istanbul, Spain faced a real test to their new-found supremacy. Playing in one of the most challenging venues in the world against one of Europe’s most threatening sides, La Roja were initially put off by the hostile environment as well as the notable absences of Carles Puyol in defence and Villa in attack. Not accustomed to coming from behind, the end of the first half may have thrown those fans that have learned to check their hope the hard way back into the tumultuous waters of doubt. Spain were enjoying a few admirable spells of possession, but Turkey were doing a good job of making life difficult for Xavi and Torres looked especially lonely up front.
But in what exemplified the new-found spirit in this Spanish squad, La Seleccion came out in the second half with determination befitting a championship side. As the commentators on the Spanish channel, La Sexta have affectionately coined it, La Roja returned to their “ticky tacky” passing and, showing their mettle, were able to come away having snatched all three points, effectively putting one foot into South Africa 2010.
Now with a European title, three straight victories against notable competition (a friendly against England/two World Cup Qualifiers against Turkey), and six victories out of six (a total of 18 points) in Group 5, Vicente del Bosque’s side has effectively removed itself from the Spanish squads of old. Featuring a style of football all their own, an extraordinarily deep squad bursting with tested talent, and a will to win even the most complicated of matches, La Seleccion looks to be not only among Europe’s elite, but one of the most consistently dangerous sides in the world. The true examination will come next summer, but if Spain continues to play as they have for the past two-and-a-half years, we could well be chanting 'Viva Espana'! next July as Casillas hoists an historic FIFA World Cup over his head.
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com