This was a victory for the little guys. Xavi, Cesc, Iniesta, Senna, Silva. None of Spain’s midfield could look their German midfield counterparts in the eye. Yet they outplayed Germany, ran circles around them, teased and tormented them to claim their first European Championship for 44 years.
The hoodoo has been broken. Spain did it their way. And they did it without their leading scorer, David Villa, injured in the semi-final defeat of Russia. Instead, Spain relied on their magical midfield and Germany had no answer to the mesmerising passing patterns that the Spanish weaved through the 90 minutes.
As I write, Spain’s players are dancing a jig on the pitchside podium, roared on by the delighted fans who have travelled from Spain in increasing numbers and with rising confidence as this tournament has progressed. Tonight, Euro 2008 reached a fitting climax, a tournament that featured some wonderful attacking football has been won by a gifted team of players whose technique and talent shone from start to finish.
Michael Ballack had been expecting to run the show tonight. His training ‘injury’ had turned to be nothing of the sort. But Germany relied on their traditional virtues of strength and organisation. Against a Spanish side who valued speed of thought above more physical values, the Germans were found wanting.
If there was a clash of footballing cultures on the pitch, there was also a generational divide on the benches. There have been two types of coaches at Euro 2008. Spaion coach Luis Aragones has been one of the old guard, the ‘grumpy old men’ along with Karel Bruckner of the Czech Republic, Switzerland’s Kobi Kuhn and Swede Lars Lagerbeck. Rather than ratchet up expectations, their job has been to keep a lid on things, safeguarding national reputations. Aragones has occasionally put his foot in it, but there is no doubt he has his finger on the Spanish footballing pulse.
At the other end of the coaching spectrum are the ambitious young guns, the sharp-dressed rising stars with their hearts set on landing a big club job. Marco Van Basten is already on his way up the greasy pole, handed the challenge of reviving the fortunes of Ajax. Croatia’s Slaven Bilic will surely follow. Joachim Low has already coached at club level, with Stuttgart and Tirol Innsbruck among others. He is set to stay with Germany for another two years, but a major club is bound to come calling at some point.
Tonight, Aragones looked on anxiously from the edge of the technical area, his belly hanging over the edge of his tracksuit bottoms, as Germany dominated the early stages. In contrast, Jogi Low, his tailored white shirt rolled neatly above the elbows, looked calm and in control, just like his team in the first few minutes.
When Fernando Torres muscled his way past semi-final hero Philipp Lahm to fire past Jens Lehmann for the only goal of the game, the entire Spanish bench were almost on the pitch. Not so Aragones, who slowly swung his arms to and fro like an agitated orangutang.
Germany may have had the greater possession in the first half, but it was Spain who had created the better chances. Torres, leaping above Per Mertesacker, had hit the base of a post from Sergio Ramos’ cross and Lehmann had stretched to palm the ball away when Iniesta’s cross deflected off Christoph Metzelder.
At the break, the momentum was with Spain and Low responded by ditching the off-the-pace Lahm and giving Marcell Jansen, the full-back who had made mistakes against Croatia, another chance. More significantly, Kevin Kuranyi replaced Thomas Hitzlsperger and the extra striker gave Germany a new impetus. Ballack’s volley flew just wide but Schweinsteiger wasted a promising deadball situation after Silva had been penalised for facing up to Podolski.
Spain had three chances in as many minutes halfway through the second half that would have sealed the title there and then.
Lehmann pushed away Sergio Ramos header from Xavi’s brilliant free-kick, Iniesta cut in from the resulting corner but struck a post and Iniesta, again, played in by Cazorla, dug out a shot that struck Lehmann on the chest.
Senna came within inches of converting Daniel Guiza’s knockdown as the clock ticked down. But no matter. The little guys had won the day.
One welcome innovation at Euro 2008 is that UEFA has waited until after the Final before announcing the team of the tournament. So the embarrassment of Zinedine Zidane being voted the competition’s best player (as happened two years ago in 2006) is avoided.
In this case, however, it’s hard to see any outstanding performers from the Final who suddenly came to people’s attention in the last match of the tournament.
My team, in a 4-1-4-1 formation, naturally, is: Casillas – Hamit Altintop, Marcena, Chiellini, Van Bronckhorst – Senna – Arshavin, Ballack, Sneijder, Silva – Pavlyuchenko.
Not many Germans, but then Ballack was their only truly world-class performer.
Lehmann made some important saves in the Final, but he looked edgy throughout the tournament. Bastian Schweinsteiger, outstanding against Portugal in the quarter-final, blotted his copybook with his red card against Croatia.
There are only two Spanish midfielders, Senna, and Silva, who was their most consistent performer. Pavlyuchenko gets the nod as the lone striker ahead of Tores and David Villa because Villa missed the Final and Torres was not consistent over the course of six matches.
At the back, Carlos Marchena was the tournament’s outstanding centre-back. He kept Luca Toni at bay in the quarter-final did a similar job on Miroslav Klose in the Final.
The general concensus here has been that this has been a tournament to savour, largely because of the attack-minded football. An alternative argument, put by one of my colleagues, is that very few teams at Euro 2008 have true quality and that most struggle if they were forced to compete in the Champions League on a regular basis.
In response, it can be argued that at least 10 teams here could hold their own in the Champions League, where the number of teams who can win the trophy barely runs to double figures. Jose Mourinho, when he was presented as the new coach of Internazionale, claimed that there are 11 teams “who want to win it: four from England, three from Italy, one from Germany and three from Spain.”
For every Greece or Austria, there is a Sparta Prague or Rosenborg. The real difference between the European Championships and the Champions League is the structure of the respective competitions. The Champions League rewards the clubs with the strongest squads and the deepest pockets in the transfer market. The European Championships (and the World Cup) tend to be won by the country who wins the mental battle over the short three weeks of the competition. It’s a very different ball game.