Monday, June 30, 2008

"Cuando te toca, te toca" ~Spanish Proverb

(When It's Your Time, It's Your Time)

The best team won Euro 08 by playing the best football. And they were the best team precisely because they played the best football. It wasn't their physical size or their experience or their resolve to avoid defeat that propelled them to the top. And, it surely wasn't their unflinching and dogged attention to defending that won it for them either. This wasn't the San Antonio Spurs. Or Italy. Of course, the Spanish had all of those one-dimensional qualities (except for size) in spades but it wasn't any singular thing that did it. They were just more talented and they just played harder and smarter throughout the run of the tourney. And their determination and fortitude were matched by a degree of creativity and improvisation that showed why proper football (as opposed to American football) is referred to as "The Beautiful Game."

It sounds simple but it a rare thing for a major sporting event to end this way.

In the 2004 edition of this same Euro tournament the Greeks shocked the footballing world with an audacious run to the title. They put ten men behind the ball at almost all times and counterattacked their way to an upset win over Portugal in the Final. The Greeks showed steely nerve and rock-solid confidence in grinding out 1-0 victories (which is the score that saw them through the quarters, semis and the final) but no one was confusing them with being the very best team in Europe. They were just the team who game-planned their way through a six-match competition. They employed a type of "negative" football that sought to negate their opponents advantages in skill and pace by slowing the game to a crawl. And it worked. This same tactic saw Italy all the way to the World Cup title in 2006 and has earned the Azzuri the reputation of being a "tournament team." Whether or not that (the idea that they are built for grueling, hard-to-watch, foul-and-flop-filled victories rather than flowing artful displays of the beautiful game) is true it can go without saying that such a game-plan turns off casual fans in this country with the same exactitude as a midweek NHL game hidden on that VS channel.

Of course, one team's style and previous body of work should not gift them a title or disqualify them from it. The Italians rightfully won the 2006 World Cup. The Greeks courageously won the 2004 Euro. The St. Louis Cardinals surprisingly won the 2006 World Series (despite an 83-78 regular season record). To take nothing away from the legitimacy of these titles, there is a marked difference, especially in international football, between a team going out to play their own game and a team going out to stop another team from playing theirs. And the problem (or not, depending on were your allegiance is) is that this "negative" footballing works. It allows teams like Bolton in the English Premiership to give fits to an intricate passing side like Arsenal. In the NBA it also has something to do with the fact that the Phoenix Suns never made it past the San Antonio Spurs under Mike D'Antoni in spite of the fact that their free-flowing style of play was far and away the most visually pleasing to watch during those seasons. Were the Suns unable to get over the hump because they just weren't as good as the Spurs or because the Spurs were content to deploy a bulldog like Bruce Bowen or Robert Horry to slow the game down like the Greeks in Euro 04?

In a sporting world increasingly obsessed with an "any given Sunday" ethos it is increasingly rare to see a highly entertaining competitive tournament among world-class sides where the classiest side in the world wins out. In fact, the very idea of the best team just winning seems almost unsportsmanlike. We are bred to respect a victory born of grit and guile (see Boise State in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl) more than one born of supreme skill and consistency. The phrase "may the best team win" seems more like something that an arrogant and likely cheating Zabka-esque villian, with a shock of blond hair and weightlifting gloves, snidely says to the underdog hero before the climactic contest in a John Hughes-era movie than it does an honest desire to see a team (like Spain in Euro 08) actually win on the merits of being the best. Moreover, in a world of small-market versus big-market teams and college football/basketball recruiting controversies - where the accumulation of talent is uneven - it can seem like a cop-out to root for the more talented teams to win. We usually don't want the best team to win.

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is built on just this sort of intrigue. Most fans can't wait for the "better" teams to be beaten by the lesser ones. We revel in the Cinderella-run of a team like George Mason in in 2006 even though that costs the basketball-watching public a chance from seeing a UConn/Florida matchup in the Final Four that would have pitted the region's #1 team against the team that would go on to win the NCAA tournament. Similarly, even casual sports fans took notice when Fresno State recently pulled off a shock win in the 2008 College World Series. The Fresno State Bulldogs won their game's most significant trophy after wrapping a season during which they lost 29 games. Yes, they did win the College World Series but, no, they're not the best that college baseball has to offer. Not even close. But that doesn't not make them champions.

Thankfully Spain was able two satisfy seemingly disparate desires with the Euro-clinching 1-0 win over Germany yesterday in Vienna. They were the best team by leaps and bounds and they were not one of the traditional powers. Not really. They were the perennial underachievers who had not lifted an international trophy in 44 years. The were the also-rans. They were forever the bridesmaids. The were the buddy who you would let hang out with your girlfriend when you're not around because you know he wouldn't have it in him to try anything. The Spanish were always talented and artful but seemed to lack the cutting edge when it counted most. They were diminutive play-makers who excelled at the club level but were destined to be muscled off the ball by larger players from Italy and Germany and England and France when the game was in the balance.

And, in the Final when the more physically imposing German side lined up across the pitch? The Spanish never flinched. There wasn't a single Spanish player who lost his composure when German midfielder Michael Ballack seemingly lost his mind from the moment he saw his own blood and went stomping around the field in Vienna begging to be sent off with each late challenge and needlessly dirty foul. While Ballack whined to the officials and recklessly flew around the field the Spanish just moved the ball from side to side, dominating possession. They played with greater strength and confidence. They were playing positive football and they were playing to win on their terms. After a while the identity of their opponent became inconsequential. They were playing the Spanish way. They were playing beautifully. I fully expected Germany to net a goal at some point during the match but never doubted that Spain would have had the wherewithal to go atop again. They were almost always in the ascendance (save about ten total minutes throughout the match) and Fernando Torres was too strong and too fast for the defense and the passes sent on to him were too incisive and too direct to be parried away before he could run on to them.

With a night's sleep since the Final it seems that Spain's dash through Euro 08 was even more dominant than we gave them credit for as it was unfolding. The Spanish were one of only three teams (along with the Netherlands and Croatia) to win all three matches in the group stage. And, they were the only side to win each game that they took the field in. Well, the penalty shootout win over the Italians is actually considered a tie by FIFA. With the Spaniards tying Italy in the game itself and then advancing on penalties. But, anyone who watched the game knows the Spanish deserved the win and were the better team in that clash. By far. The Spanish also scored the most goals in the tournament, netting 12 in six games. They took the most shots (111). They took the most shots on goal (61). They had the tournament's leading goalscorer, David Villla (4). They had the tournament's assist leader, Cesc Fabregas (4). They also were fouled more than any other team (107). And, they committed more fouls than any other side (108). They had more assists (11) than any other team. On the other end of the pitch they conceded the fewest goals per game in the tournament, allowing .5 per contest, and had the tournament's most impressive goalkeeper, Iker Casillas (Italy's Buffon may still be the best in the world but Casillas' showing in the penalty shootout makes him the class of this tournament). And, not surprisingly they placed the most players on the All-Tournament team, with nine representatives. And, of course, the Spanish side was led by the Euro 08 Most Outstanding Player, Xavi Hernandez, who plays his club ball for Barcelona. The total team effort was so thoroughly impressive that when talking about this team Xavi is perhaps the fourth or fifth name that comes up in any discussion.

Most indicative, in my opinion, of the Spanish domination and strength was the fact that they placed 4 midfielders on the All-Tournament team (along with two strikers, two defenders and the team's goalkeeper). The one and two touch passing between the bevy of midfielders in the center of the park was mesmerizing. Whether you were watching from the comfort of your sofa or were an opposing player trying to get a foot in on the ball, you were mesmerized. Each star had his moment to shine. Not only does this show the depth of talent currently in the national side but it speaks to the way in which these players were deployed by coach Luis Aragones. It was refreshing to watch a skipper successfully using his roster after watching a bewildered Raymond Domenech squander the French team's chances with his mis-picked lineups and ill-timed substitutions and Phil Jackson do his part to submarine the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. I mean he played Chris Mihm! In the Finals. Against Paul Pierce (pictured driving by a statuesque Mihm), Kevin Garnett and the Celtics!

Entering Euro 08 the number of Spanish midfielders was considered a weakness by some. Who would pair with whom? How would the egos of those not in the starting eleven affect the rest of the squad? These were rational questions given the mercurial nature of top-flight athletes. Remember Scottie Pippen pulling himself from that game in the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals when he realized that he wouldn't get the final shot for the Chicago Bulls? Or Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf shocking his countrymen by pulling himself from the team before this tournament because he was not assured a starting role? There was no such dissension amongst the Spanish players. Fabregas eagerly took to his super-sub role and was a game-changer from the bench. Meanwhile, Marcus Senna, the soon-to-be 32-year-old Villarreal player, was the least sexy choice (when compared with Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas) and least Spanish (he was born in Brazil) to deputize in the center of the pitch but he proved an inspired choice by Aragones. Senna held his team's shape at all times and disrupted the opposition's best player while his fellow midfielders spread themselves about and made frequent forays into the attacking third of the field. In fact as this team turns its sights southward towards South Africa and forwards towards 2010 it is Senna who will be the hardest player to replace.

Even including the relatively ancient Senna, Spain was the second youngest team in the tournament (Russia was the youngest). With so much going for them they are perfectly poised to either regain their reputation as underachievers at the World Cup in two years time or to start a run of dominance that will go on for the duration of this generation's (the Cesc/Torres group who should be together through the 2014 World Cup) international careers. At the very least, they will have lifted the Euro 08 trophy and pushed the needle of world football back towards the beautiful and away from the tactical.

No comments: