When it was over, when Fernando Torres was wearing a look on his face that said, “Holy shit! I won the Golden Boot!?” I didn’t want them to leave. I didn’t want it to be over. It had been a month, but it felt like it was just beginning. Some countries wait generations to win a major football tournament. Spain, for instance, waited 44 years. Then the right generation came along. On Sunday, Spain defeated a valiant, gassed Italy, 4-0, in Kiev, to win Euro 2012. They have now won two consecutive European championships and are the World Cup holders. They are the first team to ever successfully defend their European Championship. Spain’s victory on Sunday marked the third time they won the Euros. The only other country to pull off that feat is West Germany. In terms of accomplishments, this Spanish side can only be compared to the Brazil team, led by a young Pele, that won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, or the early ’70s West Germany team that won the Euros in 1972, the World Cup in ’74, and placed as runners-up to Czechoslovakia in Euro ’76.
Spain haven’t just won, they’ve won over neutral fans. Their rise to power was done with flash, playing a modified version of the Barcelona style of football that emphasizes quick, short passes, keeping the ball like a precious gem and pressing relentlessly to get it back when it is lost. Much like Barça has, in recent seasons, under the management of Pep Guardiola (who left the club at the end of the past season), Spain plays with a flexible formation, often without a striker, gambling that goals can come from extended periods of possession and highly orchestrated passing movements, rather than getting the ball quickly to a forward. Even though I was occasionally part of a chorus of people who rolled their eyes during the tournament and dared whisper things like “Oh, Armageddon is on TNT?” while Spain anesthetized all comers with their elaborate game of keep-away, watching them play football is a gift we should not take for granted.
The national team relies on the same two men Barcelona relies on: Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Friends and teammates since their youth (they both attended Barça’s highly vaunted La Masia academy), Xavi and Iniesta have had one of the great four-year runs in modern sports history: winning three major international tournaments with Spain, three La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey trophies, three Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups, two Club World Cups, and, oh yeah, two UEFA Champions Leagues, all with Barça.
After the game, manager Vicente del Bosque said, “We’re talking about a great generation of footballers. They know how to play together because they come from a country where they learn to play properly. This is a great era for Spanish football.” Disregarding the slightly condescending tone about playing properly, which I only point out because it’s one of the few things anyone can really find bothersome about Spanish football, del Bosque is right on. This isn’t just a great team, it’s a great generation of Spanish footballers and a great era for Spanish football.
Whether or not Spain’s is the best team ever — better than the late 1950s’ Brazil, the 1970s’ West Germany, or even an imagination-capturing, short-lived titan like the Euro ’88–winning Netherlands team — is up for debate. But this generation of Spanish players, the Xavi-and-Iniesta-led core of the team, the same that won Euro 2008 — Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta, Torres, Xabi Alonso, and Cesc Fabregas — have reached unheard-of heights.
I wanted to go back to the beginning and celebrate them all over again. So here’s a retro diary — somewhat modified to avoid paragraph upon paragraph of the words “Xavi to Iniesta to Silva to Fabregas to Xavi” — of a great final, a great team, and perhaps the greatest generation of football players we’ve ever seen.
0:00 — Just as the game kicks off, ESPN commentator Ian Darke talks about Mario Balotelli making the front page of the New York Times, as the camera lingers on Andrea Pirlo, who, at 33, has become the darling of international football all over again. Italy have a bit of magic dust sprinkled on them. They valiantly withstood England’s effort in the quarterfinal to be the most boring defensive team in the tournament and in the history of recorded time, while Pirlo made himself something of a meme (is this better than being a star at this point?) by sonning Joe Hart in the penalty shootout, dropping a “Panenka” right past the glowering English keeper. This is a final between two genuinely likable teams. Both countries like to attack the goal and make slick passes, and, shockingly, both have seemingly eradicated the kind of play-acting that stains their respective domestic games. Though I am a bit bummed out that Sergio Busquets and Marco Materazzi can’t have collided with one another and exploded into dust.
0:23 — Sergio Ramos dumps Balotelli on the ground in what feels like an early statement of purpose. Balotelli, who nearly tossed away the Premier League title for Manchester City, has made “the leap” in the last two games. He played 120 minutes, plus penalties, against England (took the first one and buried it like a boss), then went on to put on one of the more impressive striker performances of the football season, club or country, against Germany in the semifinal, where he scored two goals. The thing is, Mario is still Mario. In the same way in which Metta World Peace dropped the boom on James Harden back in May, surprising approximately no one, Mario Balotelli could always, at any point, lose it. Ramos is trying to find out at what point that might be.
0:45 — And it begins. Iniesta receives a long, quick pass in the middle of the park with a onetime, outside-of-the-boot flick just beyond the run of Busquets (who just happens to be a defensive midfielder). Had Busquets caught up with that, he had a breaking Álvaro Arbeloa (the Spanish right back) to his right, with nothing but green field and Gianluigi Buffon between him and the Italy goal. Important to note here: This sequence started with an attacking midfielder (David Silva) playing in the area usually reserved for a left back, and featured the kind of pass that Iniesta pulls off on a disturbingly regular basis. Iniesta once told El País that when he plays with Xavi he feels like he is “enjoying something that is outrageous,” which could be a rough translation from Spanish to English but is a fantastic thing to say about playing sports with someone else. Iniesta is pretty outrageous in his own right.
3:00 — Balotelli barrels over Ramos as Spain breaks forward. Silva almost unlocks the door inside the Italian penalty area but Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio gets on top of his final through ball. For a brief second it looks like Marchisio is about to score on his own goal. That’s how lovely a pass it was from Silva. That would have been very Shawn Marion of Marchisio.
5:00 — Daniele De Rossi dives in heavy on Iniesta. De Rossi, by the way, looks like Charlton Heston when he first wakes up on Planet of the Apes. This is the first hint that Italy might try to do what the Netherlands did in the 2010 World Cup final and kick Spain into submission (note: That didn’t work out so well for the Netherlands).
6:00 — A shot of David Villa and Carles Puyol sitting in the stands in Kiev. Puyol is the captain of Barcelona and the heartbeat of the Spanish national team. Villa has been, over this six-year run, the most lethal scorer on the Spanish side. They are both wearing pre-distressed jeans and whatever are the Spanish version of Ed Hardy T-shirts. Seriously, T-shirts are to footballers as facial hair is to baseball players. Villa is recovering from a broken leg, and the hard-charging Puyol’s body broke down toward the end of the club season. You can’t overlook the fact that Spain have gotten where they are in this tournament without two such important players.
9:30 — A series of forward runs and long-range shot attempts from Spain, mostly from Iniesta (though Xavi had a go), suggest they are here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And they chewed all their bubble gum against France. It culminates with Xavi getting a one-two from Fabregas and going just high on Gigi Buffon’s goal. The most terrifying thing Italian manager Cesare Prandelli could have contemplated before the game is that Spain still had a yet-to-be-used gear.
13:22 — Yeah. There was another gear. Spain goals can sometimes be like car accidents: slow and spectacular in the buildup and then ending in a crash, with shattered glass everywhere. This starts with Xabi Alonso, the lone Real Madrid wolf among the Barça-heavy Spanish midfield pack. He kicks the ball across field, about 80 meters I would guess, and it lands on Arbeloa’s right foot. Spain play the ball around in the final third, with a passing clinic conducted by Silva, Iniesta, and Xavi. Fabregas, being marked by a dinged-up Giorgio Chiellini (who was immense for Juventus this season), runs onto a GPS-guided Iniesta pass into the box. He lofts a bank shot off of an oncoming David Silva’s head. The crowd immediately breaks into “Seven Nation Army.” There’s only one nation.
20:30 — Prandelli had gambled by playing Chiellini and he lost. After getting roasted by Fabregas on the first Spain goal, the left back pulls up lame and needs to be taken off, forcing Prandelli to blow a substitution before the half-hour mark. Federico Balzaretti steps off the cover of a romance novel and onto the field in his place. This severely limits Prandelli’s tactical options.
22:18 — Apparently Elton John, Queen, and Adam Lambert played in Kiev the night before. Not sure who is going to win today, but I think we can safely say that the people of Kiev have already lost.
26:15 — Balzaretti almost connects with Balotelli with a cross, but Casillas handles it. He’s been incredible in this tournament, letting in only one goal (to you guessed it, Italy). According to ESPN Stats & Information, he went 509 minutes without having to turn to his defense and swear in Spanish about their mothers after letting a goal in. Orel Hershiser, eat your heart out.
37:00 — Balotelli is in the corner and sees something — a pegasus, a unicorn, whatever it is Balotelli sees — and tries to square the ball to the middle of the field. Iniesta picks it up and breaks and there are immediately five players on his tail. Problem for Italy is they are all Spanish players. There was a general concern about the amount of energy the Spain team could possibly have going into this tournament. Most of the side, with the exception of the exceptional left back, Jordi Alba, have been playing almost nonstop for the better part of six years. They’ve played in multiple competitions with their clubs, and played qualifiers, friendlies, and in tournaments for Spain. Xavi, for example, made 64 appearances for club and country last year alone. But Italy looks like the team running on empty today. Perhaps the physical cost of their extended quarterfinal against England and their note-perfect performance against Germany is finally taking its toll. There’s no rust or wear on Spain. Their passes are going off like gunshots on a shooting range.
40:30 — Jordi Alba just went astronaut status. Spain were playing ping-passes to one another, like they have all tournament. The difference today is that they are looking to deny their opponent not only possession, but any hope at winning. Alba, whom Barcelona just bought from Valencia for a criminally low fee (had they waited until after the tournament, Valencia could have named their price from the likes of Man City or PSG), just Usain Bolted on Leonardo Bonucci and Xavi timed his pass down to the millisecond. It’s a really just reward for Alba, who has been one of the standout players of the tournament. I can only imagine Buffon’s Bill Paxton meltdown right now.
Halftime: My Hollywood Prospectus podcast partner Andy Greenwald just texted me, “El baño de sangre.” That’s about right. I think Jordi Alba just ran by my house.
47:15 — Each side is seriously dropping the bass right now. Both teams probably know they are 45 minutes away from the finish line, not just of the tournament but the football year. Prandelli brings on the hero of Spain and Italy’s group stage clash, Antonio Di Natale (one of the most underrated strikers in Europe), who almost pulls Italy back with a header. Down on the other end, Fabregas makes Buffon reach for the Tums in the back of his net with a long-range shot. Moments later it’s Fabregas again, this time trying to dribble the ball into the back of the net like the former Arsenal player he is. It’s passages of play like this — up and down, full-bore stuff — when football is basically the only thing in the world that I care about. It all comes to a halt when Balzaretti tries to amputate Arbeloa’s legs like he’s working in a medical tent during the battle of Shiloh. BREATHE.
49:45 — Riccardo Montolivo, who came to prominence under Prandelli at Fiorentina and is now moving to A.C. Milan, tries a bit of long-range Xabi Alonso passing for himself, finding Balotelli in the left-hand corner. Italy are pushing in all their chips during this opening stretch of the second half. They don’t have the legs to beat Spain in the war — no team on earth can run with Spain for 90 minutes (though Portugal gave it a shot) — but they might just get back in it if they can get some goals out of this battle. Position your fainting couch appropriately. Thing is, each Spain player, even guys like Gerard Pique (who’s been a little out to lunch during this tournament and really this past season), are bringing their fastball tonight.
52:00 — Pirlo just Ballanchined Fabregas for a solid 10 seconds before the Barça midfielder hacked him down. As fouls go, that one really felt like Fabregas was crying uncle. Pirlo has been the outstanding performer of the tournament. It’s hard to believe he was determined surplus to requirements at Milan (though he called it “a consensual separation” what?). This season has felt like one long vengeance movie with Pirlo as the star: First he leads Juventus to a Scudetto and an undefeated season, now his run in the Euro.
58:19 — Del Bosque yanks Silva. Spain fans in the crowd bow down in worship. Silva faded in the second half of the Premier League season for Manchester City, but he’s played like his shorts were on fire today.
60:00 — You know the scene in Lord of the Fellowship of the Two Towers With the Ring in One of Them when Gandalf shows up and is like, “POOF! WHAT’S UP!” and comes riding down the hill with an army at his back to save the day? Imagine if instead Gandalf fell off his horse and broke his neck. That’s what just happened to Thiago Motta. He came on for Montolivo for reasons that are only apparent to Prandelli. Within a few moments he’s blown out his hamstring and is being carted off. Prandelli had already used all of his subs, and Italy will play the rest of the game down to 10 men. They might as well go down to three.
72:38 — Spain are choking this one out. Pirlo has tried a few home run swings — he just took a shot at a streaking Di Natale from about 40 yards away — but they are expending all their energy just to get the ball back from Spain. In 2010, Inter Milan went down to 10 men against Barcelona in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal when, guess who, Thiago Motta was sent off after about 20 minutes. They defended deep and with every ounce of energy they had, and managed to win, 3-2 on aggregate. You simply can’t chase a lead against Spain, though. Not when you’ve been playing nonstop for a month, not when they filled up with premium gas beforehand. I bring up the comparison between the two games because so many Spanish national team players feature for Barça as well.
75:00 — Torres, formerly the best striker on the planet, scorer of the game-winning goal against Germany in Euro 2008, currently the biggest footballing punchline not named Nicklas Bendtner, comes on. Vicente del Bosque has shown over the last few games (and the majority of the tournament) that he would rather play six midfielders than Torres (or Alvaro Negredo and especially Fernando Llorente) up top. It is no doubt difficult for Torres to swallow the fact that as he accumulates more and more trophies, with his national team and with Chelsea (winners of this past Champions League), there is such a precipitous dip in personal form. He really has not been the same player since he left Liverpool. He had a great game against Ireland, but I bet Bran Stark would have had a good run out against Ireland.
83:15 — Always bet on Torres. What was I saying there? El Niño puts this one six feet deep and reads a eulogy over it, running on to a perfectly weighted pass from Xavi and dinking it past Buffon. I don’t know if I’ve seen Torres this happy since — well, since 2008. The best part about it is all the Spain players rushing him, even the guys from the bench. Something about that goal just brought back a flood of memories for me: of falling in love with these players the first time, when they dazzled in Austria and Switzerland four years ago. These undersize, underrated little magicians and pretty boys with 44 years of ghosts to kill. They did it then and they’re doing it again, and seeing all the faces — a few years older, so many games later, after South Africa and everything else — it all comes back at once. It’s so rare that you get to see players grow old or older with one another. But just like any relationship, it grows deeper with time.
87:50 — And they treat each other with love. That was class. Torres was clear on goal, could have gone for his second of the game, but instead cuts it back for his Chelsea teammate, Juan Mata, who scores on what was basically his first touch of the game. This gives Torres the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer (tiebreaker is based on assists, helping Nando edge out Germany’s Mario Gomez).
Here’s the terrifying thing: This generation it has no end in sight. It might be impossible to replicate the interplay between Xavi and Iniesta once Xavi moves on (he’s 32 now, could feature in the World Cup in two years, injuries depending), but Spain has an almost limitless supply of playmakers who are going to try. Mata is 24. Fabregas is 25, and Silva is 26.
93:00 — The whistle blows as Torres, perhaps absentmindedly, wanders off to retrieve a loose ball. For the last month we have poked and prodded and turned up our noses at Spain. Not enough goals, not enough flash, they’re just Barcelona without Messi and that’s not thrilling enough to warrant the praise. I think your level of boredom is related to your level of interest in the game, to be honest. If you watch a lot of soccer, if you love the game, you know what you’re seeing: masters at work. They had good days at the office, sometimes they had bad days. Your boredom was not really relevant. That becomes clear when all the players, young and old, rush to each other on the field. Stars like Xavi, bit players like Pedro, bench-warmers like Pepe Reina. They saved the best for last. All the epigrams, all the moments you would want to quote, were in the closing statement. Some of these players have been kicking a ball to one another since they were 12. They’ve played on youth teams, under-18 sides, club, and country. They’re a family.