The reign of Spain
Xavi and the conquistadors are alone at the top.
KIEV - This is a celebratory column, about the 2012 European Championships, so I will do my damnedest not to use it to settle scores. Here goes.
Have you lost your minds? Where do you get the chutzpah, the blindness, not to recognize the supremacy of the Spanish team? How can you interpret their quiet, patience, self-confidence and skill as weakness, regression and the end of an era? Take a good look at Sunday's final against Italy - or any of the games that this team has played over the past six years. Not only will you thoroughly enjoy the performances of the reigning world and European champion, you will also come to understand that nothing has changed. The genius has not disappeared; the movement, the passing, the accuracy and the clinical finishing off of the opponent are all still there. Now it's much easier to understand why this is the only nation to win three consecutive tournaments and why Spain is already the favorite to lift the trophy at the World Cup in Brazil in two years.
Among the ocean of doubts that were suddenly raised about Spain, there were also, inexplicably, questions asked about the performances of Xavi. Some even doubted his ability to play at the highest level. Well, let's put things in perspective and recognize the greatest passer of the ball alive today. Xavi Hernandez knows when he is needed and he knows when he ought to let others get the job done. He does the same thing when wearing the Barcelona uniform so there's every reason for him to do it when representing Spain. Especially when there's another Xavi - Xavi Alonso from Real Madrid - playing alongside him.
Spain's first goal in Sunday's final began with a short pass from Barcelona's Xavi to his Catalonian countrymen Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. The easy part - putting the ball in the back of the net - was left to David Silva. The second goal was a virtuoso solo performance, with Xavi sending a divine pass to Jordi Alba, who has just signed for Barcelona. While his teammates were screaming for Xavi to pass the ball, he waited. And waited. And then waited another few seconds. Only when he realized Alba had sprinted past the entire Italian defense and was still far enough away from Gianluigi Buffon did he launch the pass. Alba never broke stride, because he knew that the best passer on earth would not let him down. That made it 2-0 and effectively ended the game. But then, in the final minutes, Xavi set up a goal for Fernando Torres. Just for dessert. Just to prove that with such talented players, Spain doesn't need a recognized striker to beat any team there is.
The truth is that even a one-goal advantage would have meant game over. No team has managed to come from behind against Spain in the past six years and you can bet the Italians were only too aware of that. They deserve praise for the way they tried to fight their way back into the game, but with the kind of defense Spain boasts and a goalkeeper who rarely makes errors, it was always going to be beyond their reach.
Italy deserved to reach the final and will, with the quality of players available, no doubt challenge Spain's supremacy in the coming years. Spain, in the meantime, will pray that Xavi remains at the top of his game for as long as possible. Because Spain will face its greatest challenge on the day he retires from international soccer. If the team manages to overcome his absence, that will be a sensation. Spain was without two of its most important players - David Villa and Carles Puyol - for Euro 2102, yet it managed just fine without them. It will find another world-class goalie like Iker Casillas. It may even stumble across the new Iniesta. But a player like Xavi comes along once in several generations.
So how did the country that had earned a reputation as the biggest loser in international soccer become such a winner? Much of the credit belongs to Luis Aragones, who was the coach at Euro 2008 and the first to lead them to the land of victory. From that moment on, Spain recognized it could write its own chapter in soccer history.
Even more credit is due to current coach Vicente del Bosque, who led the team to World Cup glory and then European glory. New coaches, especially those whose predecessors have enjoyed great success, often panic and try to start everything from scratch. Not del Bosque. He arrived in the position with enough medals - and, more importantly, enough self-confidence - to avoid that pitfall. He took from Aragones the positive elements, took full advantage of the kind of sparkling soccer being played by Spain's top two sides - Real Madrid and Barcelona - and added his own special ingredient. He cooked up a meal fit for a king. And all we can do is sit back and savor it.
Like politicians and military leaders, Spain did not just want to win; they wanted to create a lasting impression of a great victory. One that is remembered more than the details or the path to the final. Spain did not play outstanding soccer for much of Euro 2012, and some are no doubt asking why they didn't perform throughout like they did in the final. The simple answer is that it's impossible. Sunday night's performance was a once-in-a-tournament event; Spain hit top form at exactly the right time. The question should be: Is there any other team in the world that can put on a performance like that - in the final of a major tournament and against Spain? The answer, it seems, is no.