Spain's springboard to the top

Spain's springboard to the top

July 2, 2013
By Duncan McMath

Spain's record run of 29 competitive matches without defeat was ended in emphatic style by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final on Sunday. But it's easy to forget just how far they have come in a very short space of time.

Spain Euro 2008 final celeb
GettyImagesSpain edged out Germany 1-0 in the Euro 2008 final

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It's five years since La Roja took their place on the throne of European football. And it was a long time in coming. A frustrating and painful journey for the Spanish fans. But when Fernando Torres slid the ball beyond Jens Lehmann, Spain knew that something special was happening, and about time.

Between 1964 and 2008, Spain fans had nothing to shout about, besides a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Their European Championship victory in 1964 was the only piece of silverware they'd won, and it was followed by a sterile 16-year run without even qualifying for the continental competition.

Before 2010, the Spanish had only got beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup once, and that was back in 1950 when they finished fourth.

But something changed in 2008. To begin with, Luis Arragones had arguably the best Spain squad of any manager since that European Championship-winning team of 1964. Largely thanks to La Masia's production line, which has gifted both Barca and La Roja with a golden generation.

The 2008 Spain squad was made up of seven former Barca youth team players. By 2012 that number had risen to nine, with seven La Masia graduates representing Spain in the final against Italy.

You have to go back to 1964 for Spain's previous golden generation. That side was crammed full of talent with the likes of Ignacio Zoco, Armancio Amaro, Luis Suarez and Marcelino crucial in Spain's European success.

Of course Spain did produce some special players between '64 and '08. The likes of Emilio Butragueno, Andoni Zubizarreta, Fernando Hierro and Raul are among the best footballers to have played the beautiful game. But it wasn't until 2008 that some Spanish fans truly believed they had a side capable of ending their barren run.

And even then, very few really, truly believed it. Despite knowing that their team had the creme de la creme, usually reserved for a creme brulee in a posh Parisian diner, the Spanish could still smell disappointment.

Much like the English, there was a feeling of, 'I'm sure we'll find a way to balls it up'. Pessimism far outweighed optimism, which reached a crescendo when Spain came up against Italy in the quarter-finals in Vienna.

Prior to that clash, Spain had won one, drawn four and lost five against the Azzurri - their only win coming in the sides' first ever meeting, at the 1920 Olympic games. So it was hardly surprising that faith in Spain was hard to come by.

Some Spanish hearts still hadn't recovered from Roberto Baggio's 88th minute winner at USA '94, which knocked out Spain in the quarters, robbing them of what would have been a first ever semi-final appearance at the World Cup.

Spain Euro 2012 final celeb vs Italy
GettyImagesThe success of Spain's senior side has been matched by their junior counterparts.

And when Spain failed to get the job done in 120 minutes, the doubts turned to total certainty. Spain were going home. It was all over. They'd shown promise, they'd played good football, but their Euro 2008 campaign was about to go up in plumes of thick smoke. Just as they knew it would.

At that point in major competitions La Roja had played four shoot-outs, losing three and winning just once. They'd been knocked out of Mexico '86, Euro '96 and the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea on penalties. They'd even lost to England.

But times were changing and Cesc Fabregas' winning penalty was the turning point. From a nation of non-believers, suddenly their prayers had been answered. They'd finally put Italy to the sword and overcome their shocking run in shoot-outs. Two betes noires slayed in one fell swoop.

Torres' goal in the final against Germany handed Spain their second European cup, 44 years after their first. But it was about so much more than ending a draught.

The quarter-final victory over Italy gave them the confidence to go and win the tournament, and their Euro 2008 triumph helped them, and the fans, realise that Spain were suddenly, potentially, world beaters.

They were the favourites to lift the World Cup in 2010 and they didn't disappoint. Iniesta's 116th minute winner against the Dutch at Soccer City handed La Roja their first ever World Cup, and saw them officially and unequivocally named the best team in the world.

And when they won their third title in four years at last summer's European Championship, becoming the first ever national side to win the Euros, the World Cup and the Euros again - Spain weren't just talked about as the best, but perhaps even the best ever.

"We're the modern day Brazil" Fernando Torres said, admittedly just hours before Spain were totally outplayed by the real Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.

But he had a point. Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and Torres will be spoken in years to come with the same awe and admiration nostalgically given to former Brazilian greats like Pele and Garrincha or Zico and Socrates.

It will take something very special to dethrone the Spanish in 2014. And with the likes of Isco and Thiago Alcantara waiting in the wings, this might be just the start of Spain's reign over the footballing world.