Soccer

How Spain Became History's Greatest International Team

Winning Euro 2012 made Spain the first country to win three consecutive major tournaments. One can quibble whether they are the best of all time, but they are the most accomplished. How did a middling team at Germany 2006 evolve into such a juggernaut? A confluence of factors.

Coaching is important, but not that important. Vicente del Bosque has won multiple Champions Leagues, the World Cup and the European Championship. He’s obviously a great coach. Spain also won Euro 2008, however, with Luis Aragones. His most notable accomplishment was getting caught on camera referring to Thierry Henry as “that black shit.” Coaches have very little time to instill systems. Some have a great impact, but virtually anyone can ride a vein of fortune. Raymond Domenech was missed penalty away from winning the World Cup with France.

Spain have not relied on a specific tactic. Sure they have always played a game rooted in ball control and passing, but the player spacing has shifted tournament to tournament. The Spanish played a far more direct 4-4-2 at Euro 2008, shifted to a more defensively sound 4-2-3-1 in South Africa and played a ponderous 4-6-0 (or 4-1-2-3) with Cesc Fabregas a false nine forward.

So, if not coaching or tactics? Well, first, Spain had a “golden generation” of players come of age at approximately the same time in Euro 2008. Their collective transfer value now was worth 43 percent more than the next highest, Germany. Those players were just establishing themselves in the national team in 2006. By 2008, they were ready to take over.

The 2008 squad included Xavi (28), Fernando Torres (24), Andres Iniesta (24), Xabi Alonso (26), David Villa (26), Iker Casillas (27), David SIlva (22), Sergio Ramos (22), Santi Cazorla (23) and Cesc Fabregas (21). Pique and Pedro, both 21, had not quite made the squad yet. They were loaded with the best collection of talented young players in the world just starting to hit their prime. Four years later, most of them have at least one, if not two tournaments left in them.

Enhancing the golden generation’s talent has been Spain’s incredible level of continuity. International soccer is different from the club game. Players just in from different clubs, countries and leagues, have a couple matches and training sessions and then disappear again. Implementing strategies with limited time is hard. Any higher level cohesion can be a decisive advantage. That’s what Spain have with their spine of Barcelona players.

Pique, Puyol, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas and Pedro are all Barcelona players and, for the most part, Barcelona academy players. Fabregas spent some time in a similar system at Arsenal. Pique spent a spell at Manchester United before returning. They have played hundreds of matches together, often dating back to their early teen years in the youth academy. That sixth sense Xavi and Iniesta with each other is anticipation cultivated through extensive interaction.

Spain take this a step further. They have modeled their philosophy, ball control and slick passing, around Barcelona. Barca have played that way since those players have been at the club. Basically, you have supremely gifted players, playing a system they know well with players who have been playing together since they were kids. Even the non-Barcelona players have been with the team for 2-3 tournament and qualifying runs and fit in seamlessly. Spain is the closest thing to an elite club side International soccer can offer.

They also have had the other component a great international run requires, luck. They have been remarkably healthy entering and during tournaments. Their couple injuries at Euro 2012, Puyol and Villa, was their worst stretch of the three. They won both shootouts they played in, against Italy in 2008 and against Portugal in 2012. They edged out four 1-0 wins in the 2010 knockout stages that could have gone a different direction.

Spain had the seeds of a brilliant team, and developed them about as well as can be asked. They haven’t always outplayed teams as much as credited, but they have always been the most poised, the most prepared and the most adept at taking their opportunities. They have won three-straight international tournaments and, scarily for everyone else, should return most of the same cast for 2014.

[Photo via Getty]

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