Spain were the first national team to win three international tournaments in a row. Their deserved – and very different – victories at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, led experts to argue that this terrific team was the best international side in football history. Viva España!
It took Spain long enough. For decades, they had promised much but delivered little – until this period of total dominance. What made Spain so special between 2008 and 2012 was their approach. As opposition teams came up with new strategies to face them, Spain would change their plans to find innovative ways to win. It helped that the team was dominated by players from Barcelona, who played with each other all the time. That allowed their main tactic, known as tiki-taka and based around keeping possession with short passes and fast movement off the ball, to flourish.
Spain won Euro 2008, the first of their three big victories, with an adventurous, attacking team. Inspired by the Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernández, who was voted player of the tournament, they thrashed Russia 3–0 in the semi-final and beat Germany 1–0 in the final. Everyone agreed the best team had won. More than that, Spanish fans were proud of how the team had played. They believed the intense style of possession, with short passes, was attractive to watch. Fantas-tiki-taka!
In the leadup to the 2010 World Cup, Spain had been on an unbeaten run of 35 games. Opponents changed their style in this tournament, though – and in the opening game against Switzerland, Spain were in for a shock. Switzerland defended deep in their own half, with every player behind the ball. There was no room for Xavi or his teammates to create an opportunity. In fact, Switzerland had one counterattack and scored to win 1–0. Now the world had seen how mighty Spain could be beaten.
One more defeat would send Spain crashing out of the World Cup. But they did not panic or change their style. As their opponents stayed closer to their own goal, Spain remained patient and trusted in tiki-taka. Spain reached the knockout rounds and beat Portugal, Paraguay and Germany all 1–0. The opposition could never score because they so rarely had the ball. One goal was enough for Spain.
In the final they were up against the Netherlands, who thought the only way to win was to defend deep and score on the counterattack. Spain attacked and attacked, the Netherlands defended and defended. For Xavi, it was “a battle to defend the soul of football”. Spain kept knocking on the door and the Netherlands kept slamming it shut. Until, with five minutes left, the Spain midfielder Andrés Iniesta ran on to a loose ball and drilled home a dramatic winner: 1–0 again; this time Spain were champions of the world.
At Euro 2012, Spain were bidding to make history as the first national team to win three tournaments in a row – and the first to successfully defend a European title. Would someone work out a way to beat them this time? Once again, Spain came up with a new solution.
This time they played without a proper centre-forward. They added an extra midfielder who played as a false nine, a position made successful by Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Messi is from Argentina, so instead Spain used Cesc Fábregas, who grew up playing for Barcelona and understood the role perfectly.
It may sound strange, but without a centre-forward in their team, Spain were able to create the spaces to score even more goals. In the Euro 2012 final, they blew away in-form Italy, winning 4–0. Once again, possession proved the difference: the final was their tenth knock-out match in a row without conceding a goal. And it’s not because Spain were a boring side, it’s because their opponents could never get the ball!
Un, dos, tres! Three tournaments and three titles: for this Spain team, good things definitely came in threes! The current crop of Spain players, led by the three-mendous trio Ferran Torres, Rodri and Sergio Reguilon, have the belief that they can achieve similar success. Three cheers for them!
Text Copyright © 2021 Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton. Illustrations Copyright © 2021 Spike Gerrell. Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ www.walker.co.uk. Football School: Terrific teams: 50 true stories about football’s greatest sides is out on July 1.