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Jul 2, 2012

Now that's entertainment!

At the 84-minute mark of Spain's historic 4-0 smackdown of Italy, Penelope Cruz jumped into my arms. OK, so maybe it wasn't the sultry Spanish actress and just a smoking hot (it was a steamy 97 degrees in NYC on Sunday) woman in an Andres Iniesta jersey knotted above her navel, but I was too delirious to check her SAG card.

Fernando Torres, aka The King of Important Garbage-Time Goals (see: Champions League semi against Barcelona), had just iced the final.  As the third goal went past the desperate fingertips of Gianluigi Buffon, I leapt out of my seat, punched the air and shouted, "Boring boring campeones."

Suddenly, the scorching senorita in her demi-Espana top was  my flamenco partner at Centro Espanol, the cultural center/restaurant in the heart of New York City's "Pequena Espana" ("Little Spain") that had erupted into a chorus of ecstatic Olés, incessant bleats of air horns and a cooling shower of cerveza.

What had I done to deserve this little slice of Spanish heaven?

Well, first of all, I was rocking my red T-shirt with the names of Spain's Holy Trinity -- Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva -- emblazoned in yellow lettering across the front. It also doesn't hurt that my magnificent upper-lip hair is worthy of its moniker: the Vicente del Bosque.  (If you want to pass as a Spaniard, grow a mustache or gore a bull -- or both.)

But most important, I had uttered the much-bandied-about B-word, the one that had been used during the past three weeks by jealous and inane pundits to characterize the greatest national team of our lifetime. Even if La Roja and its supporters knew all along that to accuse Spain of playing eye-bleedingly tedious, I'd-rather-watch-paint-dry soccer fell somewhere on the spectrum between moronic and risible, it's never fun to have to hear (as any Arsenal fan can attest) that your beloved team is directly responsible for the decline of Western Civilization.

Yet, going into Sunday's final, you would have thought that Spain, with its anti-joga bonito, metronomic loop of endless passes embodied The Demons of Darkness, and that Italy, the past masters of the fabled lockdown defense known as catenaccio (a tactic deliberately designed to asphyxiate its opponents), had come to represent The Forces of Light. Only the rejuvenated, attack-minded, Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo-blessed Azzurri could save the soul of soccer from the lazy, tired and self-indulgent Spaniards and keep them from achieving a unique treble that would vault them into the pantheon of epochally great teams like Brazil 1970.  (For Pelé, Roberto Rivelino, Jairzinho and Gerson substitute Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and Cesc Fabregas.)

As kickoff approached, it felt as if the hordes of sweaty, kitted-out, flag-draped La Roja fans who were jammed into the bowels of Centro Espanol realized that nothing short of an exorcism would suffice to eradicate the one blot on their side's otherwise perfect record.

Cue one priest, dramatic music and 360-degree head spins. Spain's 4-0 gutting of Italy served not only as an emphatic extended finger to its critics but also as a welcome, life-affirming exclamation point to a tournament that was long on drama but short on the wow factor. Oh, there were a handful of spectacular goals (Balotelli had two delicious screamers, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's flying side volley was as sick as they come), brilliant individual performances (none better than Andrea Pirlo against Germany) and taut games (Spain-Portugal for the priceless look on Ronaldo’s face during the shootout, or Greece’s gutty 1-0 win over Russia), but it's hard to make a case for Euro 2012 as anything more than a three-week summer soccer fling as opposed to a tournament for the ages.

In Poland and the Ukraine, the Champions League ghost of Chelsea was abundant.  Too many teams were content to fall back on dreary, risk-averse tactics in an attempt to stifle the stronger sides (well, Spain).  Or in England's case, against everyone. And if Spain was adjudged disappointing in not giving neutrals the pulse-quickening entertainment that a UFC-besotted culture demands, it had less to do with its lack of attacking intent than with opponents frequently putting 11 men behind the ball.

And so, Spain was content to exhibit the patience that is the hallmark of all great champions, stroking the ball around midfield while enjoying some sangria and tapas until the rare opening presented itself.  The geometric passing triangles were so acute that only Euclid could have loved them, but even within these parameters, one could marvel at Iniesta switching feet mid-dribble while taking on two or three opponents.

Spain's games fell into the pattern of terrified opponents trying to avoid Ireland's 4-0 humiliation, which meant a huge territorial advantage in La Roja's favor and, for the most part, a stunning lack of goals. Playing without a conventional striker in its opening group game, a 1-1 tie with Italy, Spain looked uncharacteristically disjointed, and even its own fans and media expressed their concern about the side's lack of a cutting edge. To which Iniesta responded with two words: "Trust us."

Apparently most people aren't bright enough to listen to one of the world's most intelligent footballers.  The anointings of Nuevo Espana couldn't come quickly enough.  First to be handed the wreath was Germany, whose swagger and flair were knocked two years into the future by an inspired Azzurri performance in the semis.  With Spain struggling to find the net against an increasingly defensive Portugal, the flickering German torch was swiftly passed to the Italians. The fond hope now among the guardians of the game was that the Italians' newfound assertiveness under Cesare Prandelli and the Indian Summer of the peerless Pirlo would give Spain a lesson in bold, sprightly attacking play.

But on Sunday, it took Del Bosque's men all of 14 minutes to show the world that there is but one Spain, and its cycle of dominance is far from over. Fabregas, the one ex-Gunner for whom I will always root unless he's playing against Arsenal or saying something nice about Samir Nasri, collected Iniesta's slide-rule pass on the end line to the right of the goal, and while off-balance and under pressure from Giorgio Chiellini, somehow crossed the ball onto the head of an on-rushing Silva.  1-0.

This was the Spain that everyone but Italy wanted to see: quick, incisive and breathtaking. But could it impose its authority on the game in the face of a spirited Azzurri who nearly broke through three times only to be thwarted by Casillas' heroics in goal? Apparently so, as Del Bosque's boys dropped the hammer with a second goal before halftime that was made and finished in Barcelona.  First came the kind of silver-platter service for which Xavi is famed, and at the end of it lurked the Catalans' latest addition to their bulging arsenal: Jordi Alba.  The winger turned fullback coolly beat the advancing Buffon.  2-0.

By now, Spain was rampant, and when sub Thiago Motta went down with a hamstring injury after only four minutes on the field, Italy was out of substitutes -- and luck. Once again Xavi was the architect, delivering a killer pass to Torres for Spain's third goal and prompting me to let loose with the B-word at Centro Espanol.

After Juan Mata, strangely ignored for the entire tournament, converted a selfless pass from his Chelsea teammate Torres in the 88th minute to make it 4-0, you couldn’t help but feel sympathy for a valiant Italian side that deserved better. Having to chase the game with 10 men for the last 28 minutes meant Italy was forced to pour forward looking for goals while leaving gaps at the back that Spain mercilessly exploited.

It would take a better man than me not to point out that "I told you so," writing earlier in the tournament that "the short, slow and balding" Spanish artistes would inherit the Earth and predicting they would romp over Italy 2-0, which was a more accurate reflection of the match than the final bloated score line.

Still, it was a sad end for a proud Italian team that overcame the taint of a match-fixing scandal back home to make a remarkable run at Euro 2012. Pirlo, who was at the heart of everything the Azzurri accomplished all tournament long, couldn't hold back his tears at the final whistle.

Moreover, Italy had the misfortune of running into a Spanish side on a dual mission, not just looking to make history as the first team to score a historic hat trick of being the first nation to win Euro-World Cup-Euro in succession but also wanting to show the world the mark of great teams: the ability to find a higher gear when the occasion demanded. A gear, it turns out, so technically superior and tactically intelligent that few will ever be able to reach it.

Germany, the pre-tournament favorites to unseat Spain, made the tactical mistake of going out and trying to beat Italy in the semis by attacking but lacked the kind of aggressive mentality that had long become synonymous with players like Oliver Kahn, Michael Ballack and Lothar Matthaus. Similarly, Italy was too open in trying to take the game to Spain and was never able to wrest control from La Roja in the middle of the park.

Nevertheless, by playing with attacking swagger and exuding charisma in Mesut Ozil, Pirlo, Antonio Cassano and Balotelli,  Italy and Germany endeared themselves to the neutrals and media whereas Spain -- dull, soporific and sterile -- was less concerned with being adored than winning.

That all changed on Sunday in the dank basement of the Spanish Benevolent Society when all of us joyous, sodden lunatics realized that there was nothing benevolent -- and certainly not boring -- about Spain’s ruthless and entertaining final leg of its triple crown.

As we bounced up and down to celebrate Torres' goal, "Penelope Cruz" echoed Iniesta's words from early in the tournament. "He told us to trust him," she said breathlessly, "and he was a man of his word."

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