I love Spain. I love Spanish food. I love Spanish wine. Andalucía is my holiday destination of choice. And I love Spanish football. It’s a love founded on watching Barcelona on Eurosport with my dad in 1996 when I was 17, when Ronaldo, 20 years old, scored 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, was unstoppable, unplayable, as good a goalscorer as he’d ever be plus, pre-injuries and thickening-out of his physical frame, was as fast as a whippet and possessed of such sublime touch, poise, and balance that I didn’t think there’d ever be a better footballer. (A decade later, of course, Messi came along.)
So I was pleased last night when they won a third consecutive major international football tournament, and made history by doing so. And I was more than pleased – delighted, in fact – that they won it in such style, by a record margin, by sticking to their ideology, by playing football the best way there is to play it; the way my brother taught me to play when I was a kid, which is by repeating the same three words over and over again. “Pass and move, pass and move, pass and move.”
I’m fed-up of English football, of the hustle and bustle of the premiership, of the unfathomable amounts of cash lashed around on players’ wages, on TV rights, on tickets for games, on Bentleys and Range Rovers and Lamborghinis. I’m fed up of Steven Gerrard being our best footballer when he’s a one-dimensional presence on the pitch in terms of imagination, going for the match-winning “ego pass” every time, whether it’s appropriate or not, possession and control of a game sacrificed for the vaguest glimpse of a chance of personal glory.
I’m fed up of John Terry and Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney and all the other “role models” chasing after money, and models, and loose balls. Even the one young player we have who might point towards footballing sophistication, Jack Wilshere, is in danger of becoming a spitting, brawling thug. I’m fed up of the empty, worthless, hollow spectacle of it. I refuse to pay for it, and my engagement with it stops at Match of the Day and taking part in a fantasy football league for camaraderie’s sake at work. I’m fed up of the way the speed and “passion” and spectacle of the English premiership has infantilised its supporters to the extent that they accuse the Spanish team of being boring because they’re not running around like headless chickens.
Fabregas sums it up well: “Those people who think we are playing boring, in my opinion, don’t understand the game.” Possession is everything for the Spanish; it’s how they attack, how they defend, how they control a game. The way they probe an area and a set of players, looking for weaknesses, finding nothing to exploit right now, and move to another area and set of players, from rightwing to leftwing to the D and back again, until they do find something to exploit, until a chink appears in the armour, is fascinating and remarkable and betrays an understanding of the game that is so far above England’s that it makes us look like cavemen. No current English player would get in this Spanish squad. None of them would even get near it. We don’t understand what it is that they do, even though it’s incredibly simple and logical and obvious.
The Spanish achievement is remarkable, and pretty much cements their place as the greatest international football team the world has ever seen. I’ve researched the 1954 Hungarian team of Puskás and Kocsis and Bozsik and Hidegtuki, read books about them and watched as much footage as possible (I bought the 1960 Real Madrid European Cup final victory DVD, just so I could see Puskás play a full 90-minutes). I’ve watched huge amounts of footage of Cruyff’s Holland team from 1974 and the 1970 Brazil team. I remember the Germany of Brehme and Matthäus and Klinsmann. I watched France win the World cup in 1998 and then take Euro 2000, too, and thought that was incredible. But Spain eclipsed all of them last night.
Of course Italy were beset by bad luck: Chiellini looked like a terrific outlet for them for the first 20 minutes until he was injured; De Rossi has clearly been less than fit through the tournament; Cassano, with his awesome balance and touch and vision, is only a few months out from heart-surgery. When Motta pulled his hamstring within moments of coming on, and had to be carried off the pitch, unable to continue and leaving Italy a man down against the best team the world has ever seen, there was never going to be any way back. Italy actually played nearly as much football as Spain last night, it just wasn’t as good.
But let’s not forget that Spain won last night, and over the last three weeks, without Puyol, their greatest defender, or Villa, their record goalscorer, with Torres only just nearing the light at the end of a torrid two-year tunnel. If anyone mentions exhaustion on behalf of the Italians, the Spanish players have collectively played 17,000 more minutes of football this season than the Italians. But it’s always, always easier to run with the ball or for the ball than it is to run after it, which is what Spain make their opponents do.
The success of Spain’s “tiki-taka” approach to football, which Luis Aragonés arrived at as a pragmatic decision because his players weren’t physically strong enough to out-muscle opponents, is a massive tactical and ideological victory for the beautiful game as far as I’m concerned. English fans crow about passion and commitment and sacrifice as if Xavi and Ramos and their kin don’t care about playing for their country or about winning trophies, but thinking about what you’re doing and working out the best way to win suggests that, in fact, you care a great deal. Enough to do a job properly.
Seeing Italy and Germany move towards this approach, and the cusp of success, ought to suggest that we’re doing something wrong in this country. A complete re-evaluation of how we understand, coach, and play football is going to be necessary if England are going to challenge these nations seriously, because, clearly, just having committed, talented players who care enough to physically bleed for their country isn’t enough. We need them to be clever and skilful, too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take more pleasure and joy in watching Spain win beautifully and intelligently, than in watching England haplessly falter.
Edit. Oh, and the useless, witless idiots in certain sections of the British media (generally those owned by Australians) who are crowing about how the Spanish success last night was down to premiership players, can go to hell.