John Smallwood: Just call it domination by Spain in the Euro 2012 championship game

Posted: July 03, 2012

IF SPAIN PLAYS boring soccer, let the Eagles be just as boring as they try to win their first-ever Super Bowl.

Let the Flyers be as boring as they try to win their first Stanley Cup since 1975 and the Sixers yawn their way to their first NBA championship since 1983.

On Sunday, Spain — if you listen to critics of its surgical passing and amazing ball-possession game — put us to sleep while dismantling Italy, 4-0, in the finals of the 2012 European Championships.

And now Spain, with its innovative yet narcoleptic style, is the first nation to win three consecutive major championships — adding the win in Kiev, Ukraine, to the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Euros.

This sleep-inducing giant now stakes its claim as the greatest soccer generation in history. Comparing eras in any sport is a futile exercise, and soccer is no different.

Italy was the first to win consecutive World Cups in 1934 and '38. Brazil did the same in 1958 and '62. West Germany won the 1972 Euros and the 1974 World Cup before losing the 1976 Euros to Czechoslovakia on penalty kicks.

From 1994 to 2007, Brazil won two World Cups and four Copa Americas, but the lineups changed dramatically over that 14-year span.

No sustained group of players has had a 4-year run of success like the Spanish.

National-team rosters can change dramatically between major competitions, but six of the 11 players who started Sunday for Spain started in the 2008 European final.

Seven players saw action in both European finals and the World Cup final, and that number would have been higher if not for injuries to defender Carlos Puyol and striker David Villa.

So, if you've managed to stay awake, you've watched Spain put together an unprecedented run.

Obviously, I'm being sarcastic about Spain playing boring soccer. In a sport often described as artistic, Spain has become a masterpiece.

After being eliminated in the 2006 World Cup, Spain's national team, which had been considered the ultimate underachiever, copied the style of play developed by FC Barcelona manager-player John Cryuff.

"Tiki-Taka" was considered an extreme version of the "Total Football" style the Netherlands played when Cryuff was a legendary player in the early 1970s.

When the Spanish used a short passing game that focused on dominating possession to win the 2008 Euros, it was seen as visionary.

But sport is all about adjustments.

Given the choice of attacking Spain at the risk of a thumping, opponents began opting to drop into defensive shells, hoping to capitalize on two or three scoring opportunities.

Spain, knowing it could control 60 to 65 percent of possession and still win, 1-0, saw little reason to press the issue and thus its matches began to be labeled as boring.

It came to a head in the 2010 World Cup final when an overmatched Netherlands side abandoned its free-flowing style and tried to goon its way into a victory.

Spain's 1-0 victory was considered one of the least attractive World Cup finals ever.

But what happened to Italy on Sunday was a reminder of the high price that can be paid for being brave against "La Roja."

As a four-time World Cup champion, being intimidated is not in the DNA of the Italians, who had tied Spain, 1-1, in the opening match of Group C.

Italy went after the title from the start, and Spain welcomed the challenge.

Playing without recognized strikers, which is sort of like playing football without a backfield, Spain got first-half goals from David Silva and Jordi Alba.

That really was it.

Lost in the talk about Spain's imaginative offense is the effect its ball possession has on its defense.

Captain and goalie Iker Casillas has not surrendered a goal in a knockout game of a competition since Spain lost to France in the second round of the 2006 World Cup.

The goal Italy scored in the first match was the only one Spain surrendered in the competition, breaking the record of three.

Forced to chase the game in the second half, Italy was destined to suffer the worst loss ever in a European final.

Obviously, the 2010 World Cup was the ultimate prize for Spain, but becoming the first nation to defend its European championship may have been more difficult.

Brazil leads all nations with five World Cup titles while Argentina and Uruguay have two each, but those are the only countries off the European continent to play for world titles.

Going into Euro 2012, 13 of the 16 teams competing were ranked in the Top 20 of the FIFA world rankings. Two of the unranked teams were the co-host nations Ukraine (52) and Poland (62).

There was a grueling, 54-nation qualifying process just to reach the European finals.

The depth in Europe is much greater than any other confederation, including South America.

Right now, Spain, which has been ranked No.1 since 2008, will likely be the co-favorite with host Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

Most of the players on the Spanish roster still will be in their late 20s or early 30s.

They might bore us to death one more time to prove that Spain has the single greatest generation of players ever.  

Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com

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