Spain has a mixed history in international competition. Unlike the country's club teams, the national side has struggled to win international titles. With just two European Championships won, they have not lived up to the expectations placed in them.
The pedigree of Spanish clubs, and the ease at which they seem to qualify for major tournaments has usually seen them listed among pre-tournament favorites. Yet, in tournament after tournament the team dubbed "La Furia Roja " has fallen at the first serious hurdle. The dreaded quarterfinals became the graveyard of Spanish ambitions so often, that traveling fans could buy their return tickets in advance.
They have never lacked individual talent, nor experience at the highest level, but something always went wrong.
Some blame Spain's regionalism and separatist elements for preventing the country and players from uniting in the kind of patriotic dedication necessary to win.
It is true that scandals surrounding the selection of players from the regional powerhouses of Madrid, Bilbao and Barcelona over their counterparts has been a source of constant friction in the press and among the players.
Another theory points to the international isolation of the Franco dictatorship. A restricted access to players, coaches and tactical innovation for all but a few privileged clubs set back the development of the game.
The transition to democracy and the relative calm surrounding regional issues of recent years has seen Spanish sport enter a golden age, led by the the irrepressible brilliance of Spain's Euro 2008 winning squad.
Here is a look back at the highlights of La Furia Roja in international competition.
1929: Spain 4, England 3
There was a time, deep in the recesses of ancient history—before Brand Beckham and WAGS—when England inspired fear and awe in opponents the world over. The inventors of the game had never lost to opposition from outside the British Isles. In 1929, they embarked on a European tour.
The tour was meant to exhibit the English superiority at their game. Their record against teams from the continent stood at 23 wins and one tie, that tie coming in 1923. In those 24 games, England had scored 120 goals and conceded only 28.
The tour began as expected, with comfortable victories against Belgium and France by scores of 1-4 and 1-5, respectively.
The Spanish coach surprisingly decided to ignore the winners of the inaugural Spanish League title, F.C. Barcelona, selecting instead seven players from runners up Real Madrid. The game was played in front of a crowd of 50,000 at Madrid's Metropolitano stadium.
The English showed their class from the starting whistle, dominating the ball and moving it with pace. Inside forward Joe Carter scored twice off crosses from Hugh Adcock. Carter nearly had a hat trick in the first half-hour when he hit a shot off the crossbar.
Spain struck back through Real Madrid star Gaspar "the Magician" Rubio, and as England began to fade in the intense heat, Lazcano equalized.
The second half was much like the first. England dominated the opening and took the lead, but faded as time passed. Spain took advantage and scored twice in the 79th and 82nd minute.
Spain's fourth goal caused fans to invade the pitch in celebration. The game had to be stopped. When the field was finally cleared, the rested English laid siege to the Spanish goal for the final 10 minutes, but could not find a way past Spain's legendary goalkeeper, Ricardo Zamora.
The intense heat and exhaustion of the English players from playing three games in a week undoubtedly played a role, but there is no denying that this was a historic victory.
1950: Spain 1, England 0
After 17 years of stubborn refusal, England finally joined FIFA and took part in a World Cup. They were the favorites not just to win their group, but to lift the trophy.
In their opening game they were shocked 1-0 by the Americans in what remains one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game. That loss dominates popular history of the tournament, but if they had survived the group it would have been nothing more than an anecdote.
In those days, only the first team in each group advanced to the next round. Going into the final encounter, Spain led England by two points. England had to win to go through, and were fully expected to do so.
Unsurprisingly, the side boasting Stanley Mathews, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey and Tom Finney looked the better side in the scoreless first half.
In the second half, Spanish striker Piru Gaínza knocked down a cross to his Athletic Bilboa teammate Telmo Zarra —the prolific goalscorer who "had the best head in Europe after Churchill." Zarra reacted quickly to lift the ball over the charging goalkeeper and scored the most important goal in Spanish football history to that point.
The Spanish defense held firm against the English onslaught, and dealt them their first taste of World Cup elimination.
1964: Spain 2, USSR 1
The 1964 European Championship final was surrounded by politics. On one hand you had fascist Spain led by General Franco at the height of his power. On the other there was the communist superpower led by Nikita Khrushchev.
Given the tension of the Cold War, and the history of the Soviet intervention against Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War, it was a miracle this game was even played at all.
Four years earlier, it wasn't.
On that occasion, Spain withdrew from the inaugural European Championship because they were drawn with the Soviet Union in the Quarterfinals. The fact that Spain was the host, and had already reached the final, made pulling out more difficult. UEFA threatened to ban Spanish clubs from participating in the European Cup if they did.
Franco was not convinced until his personal doctor, and president of the Boxing Federation, assured him that Spain would win. He was so sure that he promised to shave his moustache if they didn't.
And so the game was played.
The Soviets were the defending European champions and had the best goalkeeper in the world in Lev Yashin. According to Spanish propaganda of the day, Yashin was really a Spanish child who had been kidnapped and brainwashed by the Soviets at the end of the war.
Spain was led by Luis Suarez, the only Spaniard to win the Balon d'Or and the star of il Grande Inter .
Chus Pareda scored first to the delight of the 80,000 fans at the Bernabeu stadium. Khoussainov equalized after a funny bounce deceived the Spanish keeper Iribar. Both defenses successfully suffocated any attacking play, and the goalkeepers were barely called into action.
The stalemate held until a cross from Pereda was met by Marcelino's diving header. The redirection of the ball was so unexpected that Yashin didn't move.
The goal was worth Spain's only international trophy until...
2008: Spain 1, Germany 0
For 24 years Spanish football suffered from "The Curse of the Quarterfinals". They had fallen at that stage of major tournaments so consistently that it had become a psychological handicap. It was made worse by their match up against Italy.
Spain had never beaten the Italians in a knockout game, and the nerves showed. They put in their worst performance of the tournament. If it weren't for key saves from goalkeeper Iker Casillas, we would still be talking about the nearly-men of the Iberian peninsula.
After they overcame the Italians on penalties, they were a side transformed. Freed from the weight of history and expectation, they demolished Russia in the semi-finals.
The German side they faced in the final were not as fearsome as German sides of the past. But soccer history is littered with stories of teams that underestimated the Germans and paid the price.
From the opening whistle Spain set out to control the game, and control they did.
The Germans were resolute in defense, but could not stem the constant flow of Spanish attacks. The midfield of the jugones ; Xavi, Senna, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva passed neat triangles around their Teutonic rivals and only Jens Lehmann's spectacular goalkeeping kept them out.
Before halftime, Xavi found a bit of space in the midfield and split the German defense with a pass for Fernando Torres. The Liverpool striker outpaced his defender and chipped past the keeper for the decisive goal.
Once ahead, they never looked back. In truth they could have scored four or five. One late scare from Michael Ballack was the extent of the German response.
It was not the best final in history, but rarely has a team put in such an dominant performance. In they end, nobody could deny that the best team had won.
1983: Spain 12, Malta 1
It was the final day of qualification for the European Championship and Spain looked sure not to qualify. Holland led the group, and a win for Spain would draw them even. The problem was Holland's 5-0 drubbing of the Maltese had put them well ahead in the crucial tie-breaker of goal difference.
Only a victory of an eleven goal margin would put the Spanish through.
The Sevillan stadium of Benito Villamarín displayed thousands of empty seats, such was the pessimism about their ability to score eleven.
It took Spain 16 minutes to score the first through Santillana. In the 24th, a heavily deflected shot snuck inside the far post to tie the game. With just over an hour remaining, the eleven goals had become twelve.
Still they did not give up hope.
Santillana scored the second just three minutes later, and a third in the 32nd. They were unable to find their way past a packed Maltese defense and it remained 3-1 at the break.
All seemed lost. Nine goals in 45 minutes means a goal every five minutes. Surely, that was too much to ask. On the way into the dressing room, Santillana admitted it was practically impossible.
There was a glimmer of hope in the 47th when Rincón scored the fourth.
And then the dam broke.
Rincón scored again in the 57th.
Maceda blasted in the sixth in the 62nd, and notched two more to complete his hat trick just two minutes later. 8-1.
As Spain continued to push forward, Santillana hit the ninth with 15 minutes to go.
Another two minutes passed before Rincón scored his fourth. 10-1.
Sarabia slotted in number eleven in the 80th minute.
The vital twelfth goal was scored by Señor, who followed the play after a possible penalty was ignored by the referee.
Delirium ensued. A thirteenth was scored and incorrectly called back, but it didn't matter. 12-1 was the final result and Spain would go on to the final of the Eurocup; where they would lose to Michel Platini's France.
Rarely will one see a team defending a lost cause so desperately, or the winning team throw itself forward so repeatedly. That was a night that will likely never be repeated. A night that stands above all others as the greatest performance Spain has ever produced.
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