We are blessed to live in a golden sporting age with all-time greats like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Dan Carter, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps delighting us at every turnaround. Add another to the list. This Spain team is the best international team of all-time.
Last night, they won the European championships by a record margin. They conceded one goal all tournament and scored 12. They have won three major tournaments in a row, the first team ever to do it. And they are already the prohibitive favourites to go to Brazil in 2014 and make it four. They play with beauty, grace, elegance, flair and scythe-like incision. They are a squad so littered with superstars that a player like Juan Mata only got four minutes of football in the entire tournament, and individuals such as Iker Muniain didn't even get a seat on the plane.
The only legitimate competitor to the throne at this point is the Brazil team of 1970. That team, featuring Pele, Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Jairzinho and Tostao, has long been regarded as the finest team of all-time. However, if you consider the structure of world and European football at the time, a lot of there success in my opinion can be attributed to the fact that they were under-exposed. None of those superstars ever played in Europe. No other teams at the time played their style of football or anything near it.
So, in short, it was excessively difficult for anybody to really get a handle on how they played and figure out a way to stop it because they just hadn’t had enough experience against it or anything similar to it. That Brazil team was a bolt from the blue sky.
Contrast that with Spain now. They all play in Europe. They play a distinct tiki-taka brand of passing football expounded most notably by Barcelona, but also to a large degree over the last few years by teams like Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bilbao, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal. Every big non-Spanish team in Europe has had copious exposure to these teams in Champions League and Europa League games, and the players thereon that form this Spanish squad.
Beyond that, due to the multi-cultured nature of the modern football league, several of these Spanish players have played or are playing in other leagues. Torres, Alonso, Fabregas, Silva, Pique, Arbeloa and Mata, for example, all featured for Spain last night and have all played Premier League football with and against players who were key components for other teams at this years Euros.
And that's before we even get into the exposure opposition players will have had against the Spanish team itself at other major tournaments in qualifying groups and in friendlies.
And yet despite this abundant availability for opponents of firsthand experience and knowledge on who Spain’s players are, how they play and what they are capable of , nobody can figure out a way to beat them. They are not sneaking up on anyone. They are in no way a mystery or enigma like that Brazil team were. They play one way and one way only, with a group of players that the dogs and cats on the street are familiar with. And yet they can’t be beaten.
Brazil in 1970 had surprise on their side. Spain are an 800 lb. gorilla that just scaled the Empire State building. They aren't surprising anyone. But nobody seems to be able to knock them off the lofty perch.
As a kid, I used to love magicians, and I used to spend hours puzzling over how the tricks were carried out. Once I had figured them out, I was able to point out ways of exposing the trick and it didn‘t feel magical anymore. Spain have been performing the same trick for years now. Everyone has figured it out. And yet nobody gets it. Nobody can figure out a way of exposing them.
And I think that may be their greatest legacy and the reason they are truly the greatest international team of all-time. We all know the trick and have seen it countless times before, but somehow, it's still magic.