Why Spain Is Soccer's Version of the Miami Heat
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Quick, when I say "Miami Heat," what do you think of? The superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade coming together with Chris Bosh to chase multiple NBA championships. You think of "The Decision," the highly publicized "not one, not two" pep rally and their first year together under the intense scrutiny of a rabid media.
Ultimately, you may think of the Dallas Mavericks blitzing past the Heat and celebrating their first NBA title on Miami's floor, and how the team in the center of it all last year is back in the playoffs still looking for that first title of the Big Three era.
Now when I bring Spain to mind, what pops into your head? Bullfighting, tapas and vino tinto. Come on now, let's focus on sports. Let's, in fact, focus on the Iberian nation's most popular sport, football.
Spain has long had two of the most successful, widely followed club sides in the history of the game, Real Madrid and Barcelona. And in startling contrast to the dominance of the Spanish giants, the national team forever disappointed in major international tournaments. As the favorite, full of potential on paper but underwhelming, Spain was bounced early on far too many occasions.
Of course, that's all changed in the last four years. La Furia Roja won Euro 2008 and backed it up with their first world title at the 2010 World Cup. Between titles they won 15 consecutive matches part of a three-year, 35-match unbeaten run.
How they won—dominating possession, threading short passes around the pitch in the tiki-taka evolution of total football—was as noteworthy as their championship runs. The likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué and Casillas cemented their places amongst the world's best active footballers simultaneous to the team's awesome achievements.
While this iteration of the Miami Heat has only been together one full and one shortened season, they're just as familiar as Spain's players with the unique pressure and crushing burden of expectation. And though both teams were "assembled" in vastly different ways, they share similar aspirations.
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Miami's title hunt, now in the latter stages of a second attempt, is the subject of daily—nay, hourly—scrutiny. American audiences should appreciate that similar levels of hyper-attentive, second-guessing and analysis are applied to Europe's most popular sport. Squad selections, tactics, the locations of team bases, the presence of WAGs in team hotels—it's all subject to and part of the ragging television and social media debate.
The trend of applying simplistic labels to encompass some vague notion of a player or a group of players also occurs on both sides of the Atlantic. Spain was perpetually thought of as underachievers, chokers even. The rivalries inherent within Spain's domestic league and the tensions of the countries' political history were thought too difficult a task for any manager to reconcile.
LeBron James, nine years after joining the league straight from high school as "the chosen one," seeks to shed the lingering tag of one who comes up short in clutch situations. Though he may never satisfy or quiet all his critics, James rolled into the NBA playoffs off perhaps his finest year as a professional and has carried the Heat back into the eastern conference finals.
But only a championship, just as it did for the Spanish, will absolve him of the crime of wasting his talent.
As the Spanish embark on their first title defense since the 1968 edition of European championships, the expectation is not only that they'll triumph, but do so in stylish fashion.
The Miami Heat would be satisfied in winning only, but in doing so, the dynamism of their top two stars will have to be central to their success.
Spain and the Heat are also currently similarly handicapped entering the crucial stages of their respective quests.
The Spanish go to Poland and the Ukraine without David Villa and Carlos Puyol, key members of their 2008 and 2010 sides. All-Star Chris Bosh remains sidelined for the Heat with an abdominal strain, and the team will miss his offensive production and defensive presence as Miami moves forward.
Both teams rely on other overlooked aspects of team play in their respective sports, but they will once again be out to prove that the collection of their superstar parts forms a championship whole.
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