In soccer, at least on the international level, it is all about player generations. In the last 10 years, nations like Spain, Germany or the Netherlands started to invest heavily into the athletic education of kids, not only for the sake of its own professional leagues but also to compete in big tournaments like the World Cup or Euro Championship long-term.
From the beautiful loser to a stone-cold winner
Spain took a beating in so many of these tournaments over the last decades. Playing a beautiful offensive-minded soccer but never being able to take the next step in regards of winning it all was the trademark of this proud nation. As in Portugal with the Golden Generation of stars like Luis Figo or Rui Costa, the Iberians feared that their selection of young players would share the same fate of being tremendously talented but not able to win on the big stage.
Things have changed drastically in the last six years. Spanish soccer reinvented itself in a way that it had become a blueprint for absolute success. While holding on to the philosophy of this amazingly “ticki-tacka” soccer on offense, it was the approach on defense that makes Spain such an efficient and successful squad. Offense wins games, but defense wins championships as the group of Real Madrid world class defender Sergio Ramos & friends allowed just one goal throughout the whole Euro 2012 (not counting the penalty shots).
This kind of efficiency was a new side of this team that hasn’t reached it’s sealing yet. Most of the players will be in their prime for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
A one-sided match
Italy however is on the other side of the fence. Playing against each other in the opening match of their group-stage, the Squadra Azzurra showed that Spain is indeed beatable as the Euro Champion escaped a narrow 1:0 loss on an equalizer.
Just days before the final, Cesare Prandelli’s team executed a brilliant strategy against Germany with early goals in the semifinal. This time, Italy fell victim to this outcome as Spain started furiously into the match and was able to strike first after roughly 15 minutes. Cesc Fabregas made a dazzling run with the ball and found a cutting David Silva for the header to take the lead. This goal disrupted every Italian strategy to lull in the reigning champion. Instead, they needed to open up for the purpose of scoring the equalizer.
Sadly, this change backfired and Italy took the same fate as Germany on Thursday Spain poured it on after Silva's initial breakthrough. Jordi Alba followed up with a goal later in the half, and two late goals by Fernando Torres and Juan Mata sealed the deal for Spain's 4-0 win.
As knock-out rounds prove again, it is mostly about the form of the day and how teams are able to play at full strength and maximum performance by the time it matters. After Italy had ongoing success of using a two-striker-strategy on offense against the german defense featuring Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, they failed to wreak havoc in the Spanish defense yesterday. But all sadness about the loss in the final aside, Italy made a tremendous leap and somehow reinvented itself. Cesare Prandelli will remain the national coach and will be able to continue his work that he started two years ago after a disastrous World Cup 2010.
He made Italy rebuild on the fly and incorporated a healthy mix of young talent such as Balotelli, Riccardo Montolivo or Ignazio Abate and seasoned veterans like Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. The Azzurri can be proud of their development and future plans.
A result of hard work … and luck
Spain proved it’s doubters wrong as many voices raised concern about the champion’s style of play. Too inefficient, too lucky and not nearly as strong as they were in 2008 and 2010.
Truth be told, Spain had luck in this tournament. The first game versus Italy, the narrow match against Croatia that could have ended differently, and the semi-final versus Christiano Ronaldo and Portugal on Wednesday. This kind of luck, however is a result of hard work and discipline that made Spain deserving the Euro 2012 title.
2014 is already on the horizon and Spain continues on its path, teaching young players to be part of this amazing system. While having foreign stars like Ronaldo, Khedira or Karim Benzema in their national Primera Division, Spain is not relying too much on these stars and continue to put the focus on the education of it’s own young talent.