Spain are bidding to win a fourth successive major international tournament. Can they do it?
Having won the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and, more convincingly, the Euros in both 2008 and 2012, la Roja are already the most successful side ever in international football.
After July’s incredible 4-0 destruction of former arch-nemesis Italy, the question got louder and louder. Could Spain really win four successive tournaments? A look at that final again would suggest that it was a probable outcome.
Yet there are many reasons why no team has ever done this before.
To start with, international tournaments take place every two years. During eight years players retire, become less effective through injury or just burn out. In addition to all that, attitudes, tactics, formations and playing styles change: comparison of the all-action physical midfielder in the 2002 World Cup with the 2010 version proves that.
Yet, the Spanish squad had managed to change personnel and overcome several more barriers. Before their 2008 success, there was a firm belief that Spain were forever destined to underperform in tournaments because of the country’s very nature: an often fractious mix of Castilians, Basques, Catalans, Galicians and several others.
Today there are ever-louder calls for a Catalan national team to be allowed to join FIFA (they already play annual international friendlies; beating Argentina 4-2 in 2009).
In the footballing sense, the country is polarised between Madrid and Barcelona. This has recently reached its highest point since the dark years of dictatorship, particularly in light of José Mourinho’s arrival as Madrid coach in 2010. The unwritten non-aggression pact amongst the Spain internationals players from the two clubs has since gone out of the window.
Spain’s tactics have barely changed since that Vienna final in 2008. The emphasis is on possession, using short passes to create space and high-line defending to constrict the opposition.
This tactic had been consistently used by Barcelona’s development teams since 1988 (though not always by the first team) and by the great Ajax side of the early 1970’s. To date, no-one seems to have found a consistent foil to the tactic when it is employed correctly.
The difference over the last four years has been that Barcelona have begun to use their home-grown players before hiring outsiders and has since won everything in sight.
Barcelona-educated players and their style of play have been a huge influence on the national team.
A look at the current Spain squad shows that, if anything, the personnel have vecome stronger since 2008, with the addition of Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Pedro Rodríguez and Juan Mata among others. However, by 2014 the two main cogs in the tiki-taka machine, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta will be 34 and 30 respectively.
Will they still be playing? If so, will they be fit enough to play an entire club season and then play in Brazil?
Without these two, Spain will have to answer questions that even the last four glorious years have not posed.
image: © nbabaian