Spain: The Magic Continues
Posted: Jul 05, 2012
WHAT A TRANSFORMATION the Spanish national football team have undergone in the last few years.
Up till just four years ago, La Roja (The Red One) as they are called, were rated as the biggest underachievers of world football. Apart from 1964 when they first won the European Championship (2-1 versus USSR in the final) and 1984 when they finished as runners-up (losing 2-0 to France in the final), Spain had nothing else to show for all the massive football talent that had come out of the country.
They had never won the FIFA World Cup and, since that 1984 Euro final loss, could not go beyond the quarter-final of any major championship. Even our own Super Eagles have added to Spanish misery before, beating them 3-2 at the France ‘98 World Cup when the world expected great things from Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Hierro and co.
Somehow, Spain just managed to freeze at every big occasion, leaving their legion of fans deflated, disappointed and devastated. That was until four years ago in Austria/Switzerland, co-hosts of the 2008 European Championship.
Parading a band of football artistes, Spain swaggered and also rode their luck before emerging champions, beating Germany 1-0 in the final. Two years later at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the team had improved in maturity and went on to emerge world champions for the first time in their history, beating Holland 1-0 in the final.
Another two years later last weekend in Ukraine, the team had matured even more as they annihilated Italy 4-0 in the final. Now, everybody is tipping them as early favourites for the 2014 FIFA World Cup two years hence in Brazil. All of a sudden, the perennial under-achievers of world football are threatening to turn the football world into a Spanish Empire.
A quick point of correction, though. Spain are NOT the first country to win three major championships back-to-back. They are the first to retain the European Championship as no other country has ever won it back-to-back like they have done. But if the Euros which is a continental (not global) competition is rated as a “major title,” then our African brothers EGYPT, are ahead of Spain in the uninterrupted triple honours. We couldn’t have forgotten that as recently as 2006, 2008 and 2010, the Pharaohs won three African Cup of Nations titles on the bounce. Just to put the record straight.
We don’t need to look far for the secret behind Spain’s transformation from soccer under-achievers to world emperors. We are all familiar with the Spanish players, having watched them over and over in recent years in action for their clubs and country. Spain has quality all around the pitch from goalkeeping to goal-scoring. Take note: I said “goal-scoring,” not “striking” or “attacking.”
At Euro 2012, there was so much talk about Spain coach Vincente del Bosque’s refusal to field “natural strikers” in his starting line-up for key games. I kept wondering, what do you need strikers for if you already have such a strong “ goal-scoring” team? Del Bosque was vindicated in the end because not only did Spain emerge the highest goal-scoring team in the tournament with 10 goals despite their innovative 4-6-0 formation, even their struggling “striker” Fernando Torres, playing mostly as a substitute, still managed to emerge top scorer for the tournament with three goals and one assist.
The first lesson from Spain’s latest triumph is for teams to always play to their strengths. Spain have some of the best midfield football artistes in the world today and Del Bosque simply put six of them on the field to pass their opponents into submission. With pure magicians like Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas (the “False 9”) casting their spell around while Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso provided the steel in front of the defence, the Spanish midfield created chances where none existed.
It’s not a surprise at all that Xavi was player of the tournament at the 2010 World Cup while Iniesta grabbed the honours at Euro 2012. In fact, I have always rated Iniesta as the most clever footballer alive today, next only to Lionel Messi. He (Iniesta) is so, so skillful and can play his way out of the tightest of corners. His player-of-the-tournamnet award is well deserved.
The second lesson from Spain’s victory, and this also applies to the entire tournament, is the triumph of attacking football over defensive or pragmatic football. I noticed, right from the start of the tournament, that weaker teams simply conceded their inferiority and parked (or attempted to park) the bus in front of their goal, tasking the stronger teams to break them down, and relying only on the counter-attacks to steal a goal. The only team that succeeded at this was Greece against Russia (1-0).
England also came close, dragging a dominant Italy into a penalty shoot-out but in the end, justice was done and the Italians won. Otherwise, it was the more positive teams generally that emerged victorious.
Some years ago, I wrote an article titled “The Defenders Are Winning” because of the regularity with which defensive teams were edging attacking teams at that time. But with Spain setting new standards and recording great achievements with positive football; and the likes of Italy (traditionally defensive), and Germany (traditionally pragmatic) following suit, the path to future glory in world football is looking more and more creatively offensive.
That is partly why England is falling further and further behind the big names. The Three Lions simply lack enough creativity and inventiveness.
There are a lot more that can be said about the just ended Euro 2012. The perfect organization by two Eastern European countries (Poland and Ukraine) which beat the imagination of the usually skeptical Western European media; the wonderful goals amongst which Danny Wellbeck’s back-flicked winner for England against Sweden (3-2) stood out for me; the media circus around Italy’s controversial black player Mario Balotelli as well as the player’s unforgettable image while “celebrating” (the Balotteli style!) his ballistic second goal against Germany in the semi-final; the disappointment on the face of Cristiano Ronaldo after Portugal played so creditably against Spain (goalless in full time and extra time) before losing 4-2 on penalties in the semi-final; the joy and satisfaction on the face of Spanish coach Del Bosque after his players received the Henri Delauny trophy from UEFA president Michel Platini.
There are so many other enduring images of Euro 2012. But the most significant for Nigeria are the two lessons that we must take from Spain: play to your strength AND be positive.
I’m sure that Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi is reading.
Lucky Boy Torres
A SEASON that promised so little ended up delivering so much more for Spain striker Fernando Torres. Relegated to the bench at Chelsea for most part of the season due to several unbelievable misses in front of goal, Torres the reluctant substitute grabbed the last minute goal that ensured Chelsea’s triumph over Barcelona and confirmed their place in the European Champions League final which they went on to win.
Also relegated to the bench at Euro 2012 as Spain coach Vincente del Bosque experimented with a “false 9,” Torres again rose from there to score in the final against Italy and provide an assist (both within the space of four minutes) to grab the top scorer’s award at the Euros as well as a winner’s medal.
In years to come when the 2011/2012 is reviewed, few would remember Torres’ incredible misses and his moody looks as he struggled for goals. All that the statistics will show is that Torres, who also scored in the 2008 Euro final, is the first player to score in two consecutive Euro finals. That he was one of just two players (the other being his Chelsea teammate Juan Mata) to win both the European Champions League and the European Championship titles in the 2011/2012 season. And that he was the Golden Boot winner at Euro 12 despite spending most of his time on the bench. What a lucky boy, Torres!
2013 ANC Draw
ALL of a sudden, the draw this week for the final round of qualifiers for the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa has taken on a lot of significance. Following the failure by past winners Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon and South Africa to qualify for the 2012 edition which “minnows” Zambia won by beating “giants” Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire; as well as Egypt’s early elimination from the 2013 race, everybody realizes that the ANC has become an all-comers affair. There are no giants and no minnows anymore.
Many Nigerian fans that have spoken to me are scared that the Super Eagles should not draw a “difficult opponent” just to qualify! How times have changed and the mighty have fallen.
The fans have good reason to fear because of the Eagles’ recent shaky performances. But the good thing is that team coach Stephen Keshi is confident that whoever is drawn against Nigeria, his boys will qualify for South Africa 2013.
I share Keshi’s optimism. The Eagles may still be work-in-progress but we can’t start running scared at the mere mention of African opposition. That could mean already conceding defeat, even before the first ball is kicked.
Positive thinking is the beginning of success. Whichever country Nigeria draws should be the ones to worry because we are going to beat them. No sweat!
Blake 2, Bolt 0
JAMAICAN sprint sensation Yohan Blake has injected huge excitement into the forthcoming London 2012 Olympic Games by beating his famous compatriot Usain Bolt twice within 48 hours last weekend.
Blake blasted Bolt in both the 100 and 200 metres at the Jamaican Olympic Trials thus setting the stage for what should be a big show-down in the same events in London.
Before now, it was taken for granted that Bolt only needed to show up to grab a repeat of the double gold he won four years ago in Beijing. It was going to be a procession to the finish line, but now the defending champion knows he has a fight on his hands.
If you add the third Jamaican Asafa Powell and the Americans who are surely plotting their own shock, we are in for a sprint battle in London. Good for athletics.
STILL on athletics, I say congratulations to the Athletic Federation of Nigeria (AFN) for Nigeria’s winning performance at the just-concluded African Athletics Championship in Porto Novo, Benin Republic.
Nigeria won the event with 10 gold, six silver and five bronze medals ahead of Kenya (9-9-9) and South Africa (9-10-8). The big question, however, is whether we can translate that “victory” into medals at the London Olympics.
Half of the answer we already know which is that our men stand no chance of individual medals and will also struggle to even reach the finals in the team events. The women also will struggle in their individual events, but they could sneak into the medal zone in the team events if they worked hard enough.
Not very promising prospects you might say, but at least we are champions of Africa again in athletics. Remember we can’t even say that of our football or the Super Eagles!
Re: Give Me Saintfiet’s Job
I WAS expecting lots of feedback on this article but my GSM line failed at the crucial moment and all the messages were lost irretrievably. If you sent me a comment last week, please re-send it to the new number provided above because I really want to know what you feel about my CV and my application for the NFF’s Technical Director’s job.
Following are a few responses received on my Twitter handle, @ Mumini_Alao...
From Oyekanme: Are you humorously applying for the TD’s job or seriously mean business? Please don’t trivialize what gives some heartaches... Nice CV, though.
nFrom Ebonyslim: I read your column and, seriously, you should be in comedy. I couldn’t stop laughing especially the part you controlled the ball with your chest and almost passed out!
nFrom Yacham 1: I salute your desire to take up the TD position. I strongly believe in your ability to turn Nigeria’s football around.
nFrom Elufowojubayo: Are you really serious about the TD job? What happened to the Belgian who was initially appointed?
From Kameelade: I hope this is not satirical. I’m on Cloud 9 with the thought of you as Naija TD.
From Xtopherewesi: Lol... Oga Mumini, you’re more than qualified!
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