PERHAPS the greatest of the great are appreciated only in retrospect. They called Stephen Hendry boring as he won five straight world titles. They called Pete Sampras boring when he won seven Wimbledon titles in eight years.
They called Don Bradman boring as he relentlessly accumulated the runs that gave him a Test average almost 40 per cent higher than other batsman in history. And now, as Spain stand on the brink of an unprecedented feat, they call Spain boring.
Those who deride them seem to miss the point. This is a Spain team trying to cope with its own mortality. It’s not just that they’re better than their opponents. By reaching the final of a third straight major tournament, they have already achieved something that has only been done four times in the whole of football history (and then only if you include Uruguay’s and Italy’s Olympic successes in the twenties and thirties). If they beat Italy, they’ll become the first side to win three in a row (Olympics excluded). They know that they can’t go on for ever, they know that age is diminishing their key players and that their luck cannot hold forever.
Football is not a game in which the best team always wins. “Football,” as then England manager Walter Winterbottom noted in 1950, “is a game where superiority in match play can’t always be indicated in goals, because of the difficulty of scoring.” It is one of the profound truths about the game – indeed, one of its great beauties – for it means disciplined sides can frustrate more talented opponents and so the “best” team doesn’t always win. Spain, thus far, have avoided such misfortune with the exception of their freakish defeat to Switzerland at the last World Cup. Luckily for them that came in the group stage and they were able to recover.
Spanish youth football seems in an extremely healthy position. Spain won the European under-21 championship last summer and were arguably the best team at the Under-20 World Cup, despite going out on penalties to the eventual champions Brazil in the quarter-finals. The likes of Javi Martinez, Oriel Romeu and Iker Muniain look like they should be able to carry on where the present generation leaves off but, as France found after back-to-back successes in the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, when they looked set to dominate for years, promise doesn’t always translate into product. And, besides, why should the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso or Alvaro Arbeloa, all of whom will be over 30 come the next World Cup, care about what the next generation may achieve. For them, a unprecedented prize, that of being the first side since the war to win three major tournaments back-to-back is within reach.
And, to use the phrase Roberto Mancini used last season, when the prize comes within reach, the arms get shorter.
If Spain do win tonight, it will be a different kind of glory to that of Vienna in 2008. After last weekend’s quarter-final victory over France, Cesc Fabregas spoke with seeming puzzlement about how his feelings contrasted to those of four years earlier. Then, he recalled, after the penalty shoot-out victory over Italy, Spain had celebrated wildly. This time there was no “joy” merely a sense of an “obligation”. Four years ago, when Spain hadn’t even been in a major tournament semi-final for 24 years, it was exhilarating. Now, they have had success. They’re the world and European champions. Where once success illuminated their dreams, now failure haunts them.
“Maybe when they [the critics] see our type of game, a game defined by control, they find that boring. That’s normal. I can understand that,” said defender Arbeloa. “But all that [debate] speaks volumes about the demands made on Spain. People don’t seem to realise that, in a competition like this, the difficulty is huge. You can’t win every game 3-0, you can’t be brilliant every time.”
Fear breeds caution. At Euro 2008, Spain were happy to concede the odd chance, believing they would out-chance and thus outscore their opponents. But the defeat to Switzerland taught them the danger of that approach. Now it’s all about control. At Euro 2008, Spain averaged 56.6 per cent possession. At the World Cup it was 65.2 per cent. Here it’s been 67.1 per cent.
The analogy with Hendry holds. When he was at the table, his opponent was left to sit in his chair, knowing his chances were likely to be sparse. Similarly, when Spain have the ball, opponents tend to sit back and watch.
Over the past two years the only two who haven’t have been Chile at the World Cup and Portugal in Wednesday’s semi-final. Both made the effort to try to win the ball back and, as Arbeloa pointed out, if Spain’s games are boring it’s often because the opponent doesn’t even attempt to regain possession.
In the opening game, Italy were largely content to sit deep. The key to that game, probably the best of the tournament so far, was that, when they got the ball, Italy were admirably direct, getting the ball forward to Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli quickly and making use of their wing-backs, Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio, to pose Spain a question they didn’t look entirely certain how to answer.
The question Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli has to answer is whether to revert to the 3-5-2 that unsettled Spain or to stick with the 4-1-3-2 he has used since the return from injury of Andrea Barzagli. Either way, the battle will be between a reactive team with unpredictable forwards, and the proactive team that seeks to control and eliminate risk on its way to a third successive tournament success.