“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hands outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
– Eduardo Galeano
They are calling them el generation de fenómenos – ‘the generation of phenomenons.’ On the night of July 1, 2012, in Kiev, the most talented generation of footballers that Spain has ever produced – or, perhaps, will ever produce – fashioned their most lucid performance. With their destruction of Italy by four goals to nil, the largest margin of victory in a European or World cup final, Spain has become the only team to defend successfully the European Championship, and the first international side since the Uruguay teams of 1924, 1928, and 1930 to win a hat-trick – tres tantos – of consecutive major tournaments.
Spain, the perennial underachievers have become perennial world-beaters and record-setters. Much has been made of the fact that the cycle that was set in motion when Spain defeated their bête noire, Italy, on penalties in 2008, a team that they had never previously beaten in tournament football, has now come full circle. Italy has been beaten again, and with panache.
Spain’s recent dominance of world football has been so staggering that we must rouse ourselves from the enchanted state that their mesmeric play is capable of inducing and remind ourselves of its unreal reality: Spain have not so much as conceded a goal in a knock-out game since Zinedine Zidane scored a break-away solo effort in their 2006 World Cup quarter-final against France. Or to put it another way, as Rob Smyth has observed, “Iker Casillas’s net has been untouched for sixteen and a half hours.” Spain’s extraordinary cycle has been defined not only by their inventive and artistic football, but also by their impregnability.
Yet, it is not for achieving their record-setting triptych of victories that Spain 2008–’10–’12 now assumes a place in the pantheon. Hungary 1953, Brazil 1970, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982: football’s immortal sides are not mere winning machines, but the workers of miracles. Last night, Spain’s miracle was to play at a level of such audacious incisiveness, married to an impregnability approaching perfection, that, as Pablo Neruda might have put it, it were as if the moon and the stars lived in the lining of their skin. If it was not quite as astounding as Barca’s 5–0 destruction of Real Madrid in 2010, the spectacle of the condemned Italians chasing Spanish moon-shadows was both exquisite and cruel.
That the Italians had sight of goal on occasion only exacerbated the cruelty of the joke: as if the cat-like Casillas would ever be beaten! Denied agency, Spain’s adversaries became mere victims: the harder Italy chased, bravely competing for territory and possession, the more stretched they became and the more hopeless their cause. By half-time Spain were two goals to the good.
Jonathan Wilson has argued that Pep Guardiola’s final season at Barcelona became like a Greek tragedy – the hero aware of his destiny yet unable to prevent it. This final’s narrative arc also took on something of the hue of Greek tragedy: Spain compelled Italy to chase the game, creating the conditions in which Italian defeat would be fulfilled by their desperate attempts to avert it. The theme of Italy’s defeat had been scripted through the ages: Aeschylus and Sophocles, Yeats, Mann, and Conrad. Italian defenders strained and stretched sinews, contorted their bodies (to breaking point in the cases of Giogio Chiellini and Thiago Motta), pressed and continued to chase, but Spain’s prodigies created or discovered space where none seemed to exist, stretching, manipulating, and piercing defensive lines, seemingly at will. Such exquisite mastery sears itself in the memories of aficionados forever.
The aesthetic aspect of Spain’s sublime technique and dazzling collectivity is consummate evidence with which to buttress Lilian Thuram’s contention: “Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz – everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful.”
Intense moments of beauty in which fantasy and reality blur: Xavi’s perfectly measured pass for Jordi Alba in full-flight, inviting the left-back to return to earth to score a goal I had only thought possible on a Playstation; the balletic quality of an Iniesta body-swerve; the high-speed smuggling of the ball through, between, around, and away from Italians all night long; the sublime improvisation inherent to what Xavi calls “mig-toc” – “half-touch” – tiki-taka that maps the coordinates of a beautiful and unrelenting dance: ‘there is only one ball and you shall not have it.’
With Spain’s near flawless performance in Kiev, the argument about the identity of football’s greatest team just got more complicated.