By Paul Gardner
Not for a long time -- not since the days, going back three decades, when Brazil was at its best -- have we seen soccer presented in more glittering garb than the version presented by Spain in the Euro 2012 final.
This was wonderful to watch, delightful to see, almost too good to take in. No doubt it felt altogether too much to the overpowered Italians, who did not deserve to be the sacrificial victims of this master class. For them, as Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque so generously remarked, nothing went right. Injuries, having to play a third of the game with only 10 men -- such drawbacks leave plenty of room to sympathize with an enterprising Italian team. But they cannot obscure the truth that Italy was comprehensively outplayed.
No other team at Euro2012 could play soccer at the level set by the Spaniards. In fact, Italy, in the final, was the only team that tried. Portugal, France and Croatia had all opted for the negativity of a packed defense -- as indeed had Italy, when it tied Spain in the first of its group games. And nobody, whatever their tactics, beat Spain.
We are now looking at Spain as arguably the best team the world of soccer has ever seen. Better than the Hungarians of the 1950s, better than Brazil of 1970. Maybe. Up at the same legendary level, for sure.
What makes them so good? Patience, for a start, infinite patience and faith. It’s taken a long time for Spain to climb to the top, and its meant decades of bitter disappointment, and a really quite extraordinary history of bad luck and being victimized by poor referee decisions in crucial games.
I recall, 16 years ago, sitting in London’s Wembley stadium, watching in disbelief as England ousted Spain from Euro-96 on penalty kicks -- a game in which Spain had had a goal disallowed for a non-existent offside, had seen not one, but two, clear penalty claims ignored, and then suffered in the shootout as England’s goalkeeper was permitted flagrant movement as he made the crucial save.
Throughout trials and tribulations of that order, Spain has always stuck to its style, always played a game based on ball skills and close, on-the-ground passing. It has always been good to watch, but of course that soon became a criticism -- what’s the good of looking good, or “playing pretty,” when you don’t win anything?
Now Spain has won more than anyone has ever done before -- with three consecutive major titles. There can be no arguments -- this is one of the greatest teams of all time.
What happens next? Does the soccer world acknowledge that the Spanish have got it right, and try to play the game the Spanish way? A nice thought, but don’t put your money on it.
The analysts and the highly-qualified coaches, backed up by the latest in technological gadgetry will now spend a lot of time and money dissecting the Spanish style and what makes it work. Their answers will be elaborate and clever and maybe persuasive. And, it is safe to say, most of them will be inadequate, if not downright wrong.
Coaches always analyze the game from the coaches’ point of view, putting themselves at the center of everything and thus giving themselves a starting point that is bound to lead in the wrong direction.
An even worse reaction to the brilliance displayed by Spain -- and Brazil -- is to simply dismiss it as beyond reach. This has been the English attitude for as long as I can remember. Unable -- or, more truthfully, unwilling -- to match the skill levels, reliance is then placed on tactics and on non-soccer specifics like fitness, and grittiness.
It is 46 years since England last won anything. And Spain now rules the soccer world.
There ought to be an overwhelming message there for the USA, a country that is looking for a style and that has all the youth training resources necessary to develop one.
This country is in an absolutely ideal position to develop a style of soccer based on the Spanish model. We have the talent here, at the youth level, without any shadow of a doubt. Of course we do. And right next door to us, we have a soccer-playing nation that plays the sport in the same way that Spain does: a version based on ball skills. Mexico is not up to Spain’s standards ... but it has pulled off some remarkable achievements at the youth level recently, including last year’s Under-17 World Cup.
Why is it then that we have a national team that displays absolutely no style at all? Why does Jurgen Klinsmann go searching in Germany for talent -- and not particularly impressive talent at that?
When complaints are made that, given all the time and the money that has now been spent on youth development in this country, we really ought to be producing better players, what answer is to be heard?
Only one, really. That there is a formidable influence at work in youth soccer in this country that belittles skill and emphasizes strength. Nothing more complicated than that. Where that influence comes from, and what keeps it so influential, is a topic for another day. But I don’t think there’s any secret involved.
That influence needs to be eliminated. Possibly the curriculum devised by Claudio Reyna for the USSF is meant to do that. It may -- eventually. I don’t think we should be dealing in “eventually” in this situation. Now is what matters -- because we’ve waited long enough. And because right now, set in front of us, in all its dynamic glory, we have the superb example of Spain ... the best team in the world.
That is where all our efforts, all our coaching routines, all our soccer ambitions should be focused. I’ll admit that I do not, any longer, see this as a slow process. I think something needs to be done quickly -- brutally if necessary -- while we have before us this superb example for us to follow, and that we need to make a much stronger effort to learn from the Mexicans.
When I said brutally, I meant just that. I mean getting rid of coaches who do not believe in the path I’m outlining, who cannot understand it and therefore cannot teach it. We have been trying the other way, or the other ways -- all of which tend to put the physical side of the game first -- for far too long, and we are not making anything like the progress we surely should.
Let them hear Oliver Cromwell’s famous words, from over 350 years ago, “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you.”