Spain's decisive win over Italy in the finale of the Euro 2012 Championship allowed ample time during the second half of the 4-0 runaway for fans and pundits around the globe to put this current run of Spanish dominance into proper footballing context.
The Euro 2012 title. The 2010 World Cup title. The Euro 2008 title. There is little dissent in the belief this run of success is one of the best in the history of the sport.
To win three consecutive major championships—some people think winning the Euros is actually harder than the World Cup, which includes more countries but is often much easier to get out of the group stage—is something no other European nation has done before.
To put this run in proper context, the closest any European nation has come to matching Spain's brilliance was France from 1996 to 2001, getting to the Euro '96 semifinals, winning the 1998 World Cup (on home soil), winning Euro 2000 and then winning its first of two consecutive Confederations Cups in 2001.
Before that French team, led by Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, no European team had won two major tournaments in a row since West Germany took the European Championship in 1972 and the 1974 World Cup on home turf just two years later.
Spain is the first team in 50 years to win consecutive major tournaments on foreign soil. They are the first to win three in a row.
There have been some dominant sides, however, to come from outside Europe. From 1958 to 1970, Brazil won three of four World Cups. Despite missing the knockout phase in 1966, Brazil's dominance across parts of three decades is something that may never be rivaled in the sport.
The 1970 Brazil squad, led by Pele and Jairzinho—who scored seven goals in the World Cup tournament—did not lose a match the entire competition, outscoring opponents 19-7 en route to the title.
Unfortunately for Brazil, those teams could not exert the same dominance over their own continent as this Spanish team has done over the last two European championships. The South American championship was disbanded in 1967 and did not return as Copa America until 1975. Brazil were runners-up in both 1957 and 1959 to Argentina, right at the start of their epic reign.
Speaking of Argentina, they battled West Germany to decide the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, with Argentina winning 3-2 in 1986 and West Germany getting the 1990 title with a 1-0 result. Spain has faced a deeper field of talent over the last four years than in the late 1980s, but Spain had the luxury of avoiding that one team looking for finals revenge, facing Germany, Netherlands and Italy in respective major championship finals.
Before moving on to other sports—the Dream Team is looming just around the corner—there is one more soccer team that should be mentioned.
The run put forth by Brazil from 1994 to 2002 is one of the best eras in the history of sports. The Samba Kings won the 1994 World Cup, the 1997 Copa America and 1997 Confederations Cup, lost in the finals of the 1998 World Cup to host nation France and then went home to win the 1999 Copa America tournament.
While they lost in the quarterfinals of the 2001 Copa America, Brazil took home a bigger prize just one year later, winning the 2002 World Cup to cap an amazing eight-year run of dominance.
Brazil won two World Cups in three trips to the finals over eight years, also taking home two South American championships. As good as this run has been for Spain, it is hard to think of any team being that good for that long.
Still, it has happened in other sports. Of the 17 gold medals given out at the Olympics for men's basketball, the United States has won 13 of them.
The 1972 victory for the Soviet Union over the United States was the most controversial game in Olympics history. The United States was robbed in Munich, and everybody knew it. In 1980, the United States didn't win gold because we boycotted the Olympics. In 1988, the United States won bronze in large part because all the other teams in the world were allowed to use professional players, but NBA players were not yet allowed to participate.
Upset at losing in 1988, USA Basketball constructed the Dream Team to destroy everyone in its path in 1992, a feat repeated in 1996 in Atlanta and 2000 in Sydney. But those teams were mostly different players each year, with only a few holdovers from Dream Team to Dream Team II and a completely new team in 2000.
After 2000, the rest of the world started to catch up to the United States at the same time the top NBA players started finding reasons to skip the Olympics—the allure of international dominance became less enticing.
The 2004 Olympic team led by Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury—and featuring youngsters like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade—only managed to win bronze, falling in the semifinals to Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Argentina. The loss was a wake-up call for USA Basketball, sending a team of top talent to the 2008 Olympics to retake gold, beating Argentina by 20 points in the semifinals along the way.
There has likely never been a team more dominant in any sport than the Dream Team (sorry Spain), but there is probably just one other national team that would have to be in that conversation.
From 1964 through 1992, the Soviet Union—called the Unified Team in '92 in Albertville—won the gold medal in men's ice hockey seven times in eight tries. The only Olympic loss in the span of nearly 30 years came at the hands of the United States in Lake Placid in 1980. Yes, a miracle was the only way the Soviets wouldn't take home gold in that incredible rush of success.
Having said that, NHL players weren't permitted to play in the Olympics until 1998, with other international leagues sending their professional players, making the Russian dominance over the United States and Canada a bit skewed for much of their epic run.
In truth, soccer has far more parity between nations than both basketball and hockey. There is still no definitive challenger to USA Basketball at the international level, and while the top teams in hockey are quite evenly matched, the sheer number of competitive nations pales in comparison to international soccer.
A case can certainly be made that soccer today has more parity than it ever has in the sport's history. As great as the old Brazilian or West Germany clubs performed in their time, did they have to face the same depth in their World Cup runs as teams must face today? Was that competition really as fierce as it is today?
Those are questions that seem impossible to answer. So, too, is the question of whether or not this Spanish squad is the best soccer team of all time.
For my money, the Brazilian club of the late 1990s and early 2000s with Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Bebeto, Romario, Dunga, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and a host of other world-class players was the best international club of all time.
Having said that, if Spain—with its own host of historic stars like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Villa, just to name a few—can get back to the finals of the World Cup in 2014, a legacy would surely be cemented. If they can win another World Cup, the debate of best team ever will surely be over.
Spain is playing in a golden age of international competition. If there are any doubters left, another World Cup in two years will quiet them all.
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