Spain keep coming up with novel ideas. The latest one was to save their best performance for the final. In so doing they set a couple of records, and delivered an exemplary response to those who have accused them of being boring. Well - they can be, occasionally, but that’s all a part of the mix. They don’t need to be. There’s a difference.
The Italians contributed to Spain’s dominance by attempting to play an open game, for which they should be praised. The entire concept of ‘Italy playing an open game’ is an unusual one, as if it betrays a whole culture, and there were periods in the first half when they played well and created chances, to which Iker Casillas responded in his normal manner. But Andrea Pirlo, the centre of much of the football talk that has emanated from this tournament, was not really a part of it, subdued by Spain’s relentless possession but also hunted down in the right places by a Spanish midfield that boasted eight players - if you exclude Casillas, Ramos and Pique. Neither Jordi Alba nor Alvaro Arbeloa looked particularly interested in playing as full-backs, and their high line enabled the Spanish to always have two or three players snapping at Pirlo’s heels, forcing him ever deeper into places where his threat was minimised. Astonishingly, this game was the first Pirlo had lost for 18 months - 51 games without defeat for clubs (in the league with Milan and Juventus) and country. Gianluca Vialli, talking on English television last week, was of the view that Pirlo ‘can’t be stopped’. Maybe so, but depriving him of the ball seemed a good enough way to disprove Vialli’s theory.
But back to the winners. The opening goal by David Silva was the quickest since 1980 when West Germany scored after just ten minutes, and it was the culmination of a whirlwind start that had the Italians staggering around in a state of shell-shock. Spain tend to be rather more diesel-like in their approach to games, but their high-octane start put the Italians on a back foot incline from which they never really recovered. Spain were much more vertical in their passing movements, and with Fabregas free to roam the line, there was nobody for the Italian back four to mark. It seems a staggeringly simple formula, now that we have seen it carried out to such effect. Will it be the new revolution - ushering in a striker-less future? Spain have set a new template almost despite themselves, the cameras in Kiev focusing on Carles Puyol and David Villa sitting together in the stands. The great servant Puyol may not find his way back, so towering and dominant were Pique and Ramos, but the question of Villa’s return is a more complex one. He is Spain’s all-time top-scorer, but even when he was playing he tended to operate from a wide position, rather more like the current style of Pedro as opposed to the more centrally-orientated Fernando Torres. But neither could the tiring Italians cope with the latter, more conventional approach, and Torres finished off any fantasies they might have harboured of a comeback, scoring the third and setting up the fourth for his Chelsea team-mate Juan Mata. It’s been a decent month for Torres, despite the cliché of his ‘difficult season’. Champions League winner, FA Cup medal, Euro medal and the Golden Boot. He must be really depressed.
Incidentally, is the Mata goal another record? He came on in the 86th minute of the final game of a tournament in which he had not figured up to that moment, and scored with his first touch. He can count himself unlucky not to have figured more in the tournament, particularly as a valid replacement for David Silva, whose tendency to fade in the second halves of games was underlined by Del Bosque taking him off in the 58th minute of this game - perhaps a shade too early, and Silva’s muttering into his chest was the only negative note of an otherwise historic night.
Spain spent a long time in the shadows of their own making, from 1964, when they defeated the Soviet Union in the Bernabeu, until 2008, to be precise. The perennial dark horses, they are now the greatest international act of all time, statistically speaking. No team before them ever won three consecutive trophies, and no side before them ever won a major final so emphatically. They were helped on their way by Thiago Motta’s unfortunate injury in the second half, four minutes after he had replaced Riccardo Montolivo, leaving Italy to contemplate a comeback from 2-0 down with ten men and almost half an hour remaining. As Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler once remarked, ‘Dream on’.
The goals were all enjoyable affairs, all of them well-worked, and each of them displaying different facets of Spain’s flamenco repertoire. For the first one, Pirlo might have done a little more to close Andres Iniesta down, but once the diagonal pass presented itself to the little man’s heightened spatial awareness, he found Fabregas’ run to perfection, enabling his Barcelona colleague to advance close to the side of the goal, and pull back a high ball for Silva to head into the roof of the net. It was a reversal of roles - with the so-called false striker providing the official supplier with the eventual assist, but therein lies the beauty of the system. Who do you pick up? How do you see that coming?
The second goal was extraordinary in its simplicity, and yet Sergio Ramos had announced similar intentions a few minutes earlier with a storming run into the centre-forward position, not picked up by the Spanish commentators because the ball never quite arrived, but it was clearly a planned component of the tactical approach, with Xabi Alonso dropping back calmly into the centre-back position, and mopping up the Italian counter. Jordi Alba, recently signed by Barcelona, and a stand-out player at this tournament, simply steamed down the left flank, sans ball, past a bewildered huddle of Italians before Xavi released a vertical pass of such perfection that Alba only needed a brief glance back and a single touch before slotting the ball under Buffon. Given that Spain’s previous 70 games had been won after opening the scoring, Italy’s half-time thoughts must have been somewhat on the pessimistic side.
Vicente del Bosque has thus silenced his critics, and opened up a whole can of tactical worms for the coming year’s coaching classes, in Europe and beyond. Spain have also surprised a wide range of the media, including myself, who really thought that the triple crown would prove a hurdle too far. There had been signs of tiredness in certain games, and with the exception of the Ireland festival, Spain had never quite got into their stride. But it didn’t really matter. When you’re the new world reference, the top act on the podium, your performances are subject to an obsessively detailed analysis, where the slightest crack in the armoury is interpreted as the beginning of the end. As such, Spain’s lukewarm victories attracted criticism from some sections of the Spanish press - fairly muted in comparison to years gone by because VDB remains a popular figure - but it was criticism nevertheless. He was moved to remark, in his characteristically low-octane way, that the country had become accustomed to the feast, and had forgotten about the years of famine. It was a good point, but it needed to be hammered home by a convincing ending. The final provided that with such style and verve that you were tempted to wonder how long this might last, with Spain’s second team perfectly capable of taking on any of the teams in this competition. The future looks bright for La Roja, as long as they retain the courage of their convictions, replace Xavi in the near(ish) future with a slight shift in the system, and keep players like Fernando Llorente and Roberto Soldado interested enough to adapt to the system and perhaps offer up further arguments as to why we cannot suddenly dispose of the No. 9 shirt.
For me personally, writing about Spanish football for some twenty years now, I still find myself blinking at the computer screen, not quite believing what I am now obliged to reflect on. The victory in 2008 was very special, because it exorcised the ghosts, and finally changed the way that people viewed Spanish football - not just as an aesthetic, but as a winning one too. South Africa was a wonderful confirmation that it was no flash in the pan, and Sunday night in Kiev has people asking if this is the best international side ever. It’s been a giddy period, the bases of which were set in the early years of the millennium, when the current crop of players were serving out their apprenticeship, to eventually coincide in a confluence of talent that is simply more extensive than any ever seen before. Whether they’re the greatest ever should remain an open question, because it’s healthier that way. It keeps the gourmet restaurant on its toes. Too many definitive statements can spoil the broth, but it’s been a fantastic ride again, and an unusually high-quality tournament in general. Not too long now until the end of August.