How Winning Euro 2008 Changed the Mindset of Spanish Football
The Spanish national team has never been short of top talent. At club level, from the advent of the European Cup in the 1950s to the present day, sides from the Iberian peninsula have almost always been counted among the Continent's finest.
Hard to believe then, that just five years ago the Furia Roja were universally regarded as chokers, underachievers who would never make it in a World Cup or European Championship.
2008 changed the story for the nation and sent them on the way to greatness.
Football observers for decades scratched their heads over the failure of Spanish sides to fulfil their promise. It was hardly that they needed more quality. Striking legend Raul, for example, carried the flag for 10 years while winning everything with Real Madrid. 102 appearances, 44 goals and three World Cups, and the best the legend could achieve in football's biggest competition was a solitary quarter-final finish.
Gaizka Mendieta, Emilio Butragueno, Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique, Laszlo Kubala: The list of superstars who passed their Spain careers without glory is endless.
For that reason, one can see exactly why success in Euro 2008 was so vital to the nation. Spain entering the tournament, with a team as usual packed with talent, fighting their habitual enemy. Not Italy, nor Germany, nor France, but themselves and that very fear of losing once more.
Looking back five years ago, there were plenty of opportunities for self-destruction. In two of the opening group matches, against Sweden and Greece, it took goals in the final minutes to secure victory. Come the last eight, the old ghosts of the knockout stages took hold as Italy held la Roja to a draw, pushing the game into penalties.
The first sign of change had appeared, though, as Spain triumphed in the shootout, and subsequent wins over Russia and Germany granted them their first victory in the European Championships since 1964. As repeat wins in 2010 and 2012 would prove, it would be far from the last.
A question of tactics?
Undoubtedly the release of tension provided by 2008 was key to Spain's subsequent successes. But just as important was the part played indirectly by Pep Guardiola over in Barcelona.
The Blaugrana's high-pressing, short-passing game under the current Bayern coach suited international football perfectly, particularly since many of the players who protagonised it could be transplanted straight into the Spain lineup.
The side's lineup for the 2008 final included four Barca stars, plus Cesc Fabregas, who was a graduate of La Masia. Two years later the figure had risen to six starters against the Netherlands, while 2012's destruction of Italy was helped along by the same number from Catalunya. The partial adoption of the tactics and players which made Pep's team so formidable in turn made Spain harder to beat in the four years between 2008 and the last Euros.
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There were indirect benefits too. A constant Achilles heel in Spanish teams over the years has been the lack of a world-class centre forward, leaving creative geniuses such as Raul and Enrique without an outlet for their passes.
The amount of caps accrued by the likes of Julio Salinas, Juan Antonio Pizzi and Fernando Morientes, decent club players at best, point to the lack of strike power that afflicted la Roja for generations.
Notwithstanding the appearance of two quality frontmen in Fernando Torres and David Villa on the scene, the shift towards a Guardiola-inspired strategy in Spain allowed the nation to bypass their greatest weakness. No longer would the attack break down for the lack of someone to finish; under Luis Aragones and then Vicente del Bosque, every player on the pitch could be responsible for scoring goals.
In 2014, Spain will enter the World Cup once more among the favourites. The pressure is still present, as it was throughout those painful barren years, but it is counteracted by a self-belief and confidence that courses through the veins of those who make up the Roja XI.
That knowledge that they can take on the best in the world, and defeat them, came from agonising victory in Euro 2008 and goes a long way to explaining why Del Bosque's charges will be a formidable opponent for any team unfortunate enough to cross them in the upcoming World Cup.
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