Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Spain: Greatest National Team of All Time

After responding to the critics calls of "boring!" by easily scoring 4 goals in the final of a major championship(!), Spain showed what it can do when other teams fatefully decide not to bunker.  La Roja put on the finest display of its patented passing/possessing style in the game that earned them the media-anointed title, The Greatest Team of All Time.  Of course, we should clarify that by saying that perhaps a club team like Barcelona of the last few years, with Messi and others, might be able to challenge that claim, but we'll never know.  But as far as an national side?

Other teams that need consideration include the 1958, 1962, 1970 Brazil teams who won 3 of 4 World Cups.  However they didn't even make it out of the group stage in 1966.  The 1994-2002 Brazil teams made it to 3 consecutive WC finals, winning in '94 and '02, and deserve a mention at least.  But Spain is the only side that won 3 major championships consecutively.  Granted, the Euro cups deny Spain the opportunity to prove themselves against the only worthy traditional non-European contenders in Brazil and Argentina (notice how I ignored Uruguay), which casts a sliver of doubt on their GOAT claim.

However, the dominance they displayed, against the caliber of competition, over the span of 3 international tournaments, give them the strongest argument.  Plus, then we can always say that we were the only team to eliminate the Greatest Team of All Time in an international tournament (US 2 - Spain 0, 2009 Confed Cup Semifinal) in the midst of their run.

There are few things in soccer that are more beautiful than Espana's perfectly weighted and timed through-balls.  Sure, Beckham's free kicks, Brazil's joga bonito, Messi's lightning fast slight-of-foot tricks, (all USA goals, admittedly mostly consisting of the ugly-yet-effective variety), or pretty much anything Zidane does on the pitch, immediately come to mind when I think of the beautiful game.  But Spain's tiki-taka style, resulting in those perfect through-balls for a perfectly timed run and subsequent goal, is absolutely delightful, absolutely pure.  And in the '12 Euro Cup Final, they did it 4 times.

Here are the starters from the '08 Euro Cup, '10 World Cup, '12 Euro Cup knockout games that accomplished this feat.  (Its hard to actually delineate the roles of their many midfielders so I just divided into 3 categories even though the line is blurred when it comes to players like Xavi and Alonso.)

2008 Euro Cup
Forwards: Torres/Villa - Both started (but Fabregas started when Villa was injured for the final).
Attacking midfield: Iniesta-Fabregas-Silva
Holding midfield: Xavi
Def midfield: Senna
Defense: Capdevilla-Marchena-Puyol-Ramos
Goalkeeper: Casillas
Key Subs: FW Guiza, MF Alonso, MF Cazorla

2010 World Cup
Forward: Villa
Attacking midfield: Iniesta-Pedro
Holding midfield: Xavi
Defensive midfield: Alonso-Busquets
Defense: Capdevilla-Puyol-Pique-Ramos
Goalkeeper: Casillas
Key Subs: FW Torres, MF Fabregas, MF Navas, DF Marchena

2012 Euro Cup
FW/AM: Fabregas - Even though Negredo strangely started the semifinal.
Attacking midfield: Iniesta-Silva
Holding midfield: Xavi
Defensive midfield: Alonso-Busquets
Defense: Alba-Ramos-Pique-Arbeloa
Goalkeeper: Casillas
Key Subs: FW Torres, MF Pedro, MF Navas

So the players who played a critical role in all 3 championships include just these 7:

Torres, Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas, Ramos, Casillas.
Clearly Villa would and Puyol would have been starters had they been healthy this tournament.  (Villa would have taken minutes from Torres and Fabregas.  Puyol would have moved the versatile Ramos to RB, and pushed Arbeloa onto the bench.)

If Spain goes into Brazil and wins the 2014 World Cup (of which they would be clear favorites), we could then rightfully bestow upon them the title of "Greatest Team of All Time in Any Sport".  Honestly, I would not mind seeing that at all (of course as long as the US are already out).

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