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Jun 25, 2012

Is Spain boring or just too good?

This may have been a Euro 2012 quarterfinal in which the score was an apparently close 1-0, but no sooner had the second half kicked off than the air felt like it had been sucked out of Donetsk’s Donbass Arena.

As the Spaniards arced around the field tappity-tapping passes into crevices of space, even their own fans went silent as if a group decision had been made to save their voices for Wednesday’s semifinal against Portugal. Groggy Ukrainian spectators who had fallen into a stupor could not even muster a token Mexican wave. For long spells, all that could be heard were the shouts of the players calling for the ball as if this wasn’t a Euro elimination match featuring the defending champion but a half-hearted training game.

Spain’s eventual 2-0 victory, in which it smothered a craven France, triggered a Twitter meme in which the spectacle of watching the combined talents of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets was deemed officially boring. The messages could be boiled down to this: For the love of God, this Spanish side must be stopped before they kill the game we cherish with their gluttonous possession, chaffing passes and irritating movement.

Admittedly, Spain manager Vincente Del Bosque's side has not scored as often as it would have liked because of the absence of David Villa. La Roja's tactical flip-flopping between midfielder Cesc Fabregas and striker Fernando Torres has become a subplot that, while theatrical, is yet to provide resolution. But is Spain now so dominant to have entered the ethereal territory once populated only by the Brazilians, which forced that team's one-time coach Carlos Parreira to ask: "Why do Brazil have to play beautifully and the others don't?”

How did this happen?  At Euro 2012, Spain has won three games and drawn one, topping almost every statistical chart in the process. Is it boredom, or is it overexposure?

How many times can we watch a taciturn Del Bosque shake the hand of his vanquished opposite number after a low-scoring victory before it begins to feel like listening to a favorite song on repeat until the chorus and verses that once moved you start to sound grating. (Just how grating? The Germans have become the favored team for all of Spain's neutral haters.)

Is it boredom, or is it other teams' powerlessness in the face of their mesmerizing threat?  French coach Laurent Blanc complained ahead of Sunday's quarterfinal.

"The problem with Spain is that they average 65 to 70 percent of possession," Blanc said. "So you're left with a third of possession. But for 70 percent of the game, you have to adapt to Spain because they have the ball and you don't.”

It was a revealing comment that foreshadowed his team's willful impotence that would allow Spain to dictate the flow of the game. 

Is it really Spain's fault…?

…or merely a testament to their greatness that opponent after opponent abandons their most natural style of play, electing to undergo an extreme tactical makeover shortly before kickoff?  In the group stage, France had been a possession-craving, pass-slinging side.  Enter the quarterfinal, and the French attempted to retract into a protective shell that did not exist by doubling down on right backs to protect the very flank Spain sliced open to score the opening goal within just 19 minutes. A product of the panic caused by the prospect of playing Spain which edged La Roja toward victory before they took the field.

Or is it merely a reaction to the lack of tension?

Spain is attempting to become the first team to defend the Euro championship. The side managed to make time to win a World Cup in between this feat.  Their hallmark is the ability to score, and then prevent opponents from equalizing by cutting off their access to the ball -- the use of possession as a defensive measure instead of an attacking one.  To do this requires an inimitable technical control and collective sense of understanding, none of which could be qualified as boring.  Rather it is the predictability of victory that has become anticlimactic. Their mastery guarantees the end result, stripping any game they play of the soap-opera writ-live quality that thickens viewers' blood.

One connected note: the lack of tension even exists when Spain plays and the score stays tied deep into the game. Spain often scores late. Jesus Navas blasted the ball home against Croatia in the 88th minute. Xabi Alonso converted a penalty to sew up the French game in the 91st minute. This is not luck. It's more a symbol of how mentally and physically exhausting it is for opponents to play Spain for an entire 90 minutes.

The chances of Spain sportingly setting aside its unique abilities, and offering to play its opponents in any atavistic style they choose -- be it long ball or anti-football -- is unlikely, so those who are bored will have to wait for Spain's defeat.  Can it happen? 

Croatia has come closest recently by attempting to bully the bully, fielding two fluid holding midfielders and using the talents of Luka Modric to tie up Spanish resources in their own half.

Portugal, Spain's semifinal opponent, may be the team to knock Spain off its perch.  The Portuguese have enjoyed the benefit of an extra day's rest and will send João Moutinho to silently craft danger, and have the uber-potent Ronaldo running at Spain's defensive weak link, Alvaro Arbeloa, like a young gazelle. But even if the Portuguese don't win, remember this: you will most probably never see another international team like Spain in your lifetime. Witnessing Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva descend upon more physically-gifted defenders like angry wasps can offer a vicarious thrill. It's illusory, perhaps, but no less powerful.  Every angled pass they tuck behind tormented opponents can appear like a triumph for the everyman. 

So sit back, relax and stop your moaning.

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