¡VIVA ESPAÑA! YET AGAIN
Mickey Blue Eyes
One way or another I have seen every World Cup finals match since 1954 and every European Championship match since 1960, either on film, live TV, recorded TV or in person. There are also uncountable qualifying matches. That's fifty-seven years worth, and a lot of travel and video research. During that time I have seen great teams and great players and witnessed some wonderful moments and outstanding tournaments. The finest was World Cup Mexico 1970, the greatest team Brazil 1970.
Until now, that is.
After years of occasionally great or sporadically good or mediocre or plain dull stuff we were long overdue a memorable tournament and a great side to match. This year we got them. Now my best vintage is Euro 2012 and Spain 2012, not 1970. Relish them, friends, because probably it will be years before we see their likes again. Quite simply they are marvellous, true greats. And the irony is I missed the opening games because necessarily I was far from Poland and Ukraine and a TV set. I could only catch up later via recordings, though the quality of football and spontaneous enjoyment shone through even then. Lord knows the world game needed it as much as Poland and Ukraine obviously did. Yes, it lacked a Pelé moment - how many of those have you ever seen anyway? - but there were plenty of other compensations.
Of course the highlight was the football played by the champions, Spain. It was by some distance the greatest I have ever seen. Everything about it was, for once, fulfilment of the best aspirations of The Beautiful Game. In football terms it was a Mozart composition. Everything fitted, everything flowed, almost everything was exquisite; sure they had their difficult moments......isn't that the nature of any team athletic effort and one of the reasons we love the game? If they played without a recognised centre forward/striker it was because they didn't need one. Their midfield was so accomplished, so near-perfect, they had only to keep playing before their superior individual technique and team chemistry simply overwhelmed the opposition. Some of their passing combinations were just breathtaking athletic geometry, one touch control you cannot coach, a spontaneous feel and understanding that is either there or it isn't. There was nothing remotely brutal about them, though they could properly take care of themselves if they needed to.
They mostly played it short and then, when required, hit long passes to switch the emphasis. At times it was almost giddy. Often the opposition couldn't get near them, which is why you could hear an occasional growl that they are "boring." Frankly, anybody making that kind of observation is telling you more about their own lack of footy knowledge and sensitivity than anything else. In fact Spain play at the kind of rarefied level I didn't think existed except in imagination. A friend told me there are six and a half thousand coaches in Spain and only twelve hundred in Britain, as if that explained everything; fortunately it doesn't; great teams happen because they happen because they happen. Every now and then a nation produces a generation of perfectly matched coaches and players. Nobody really knows why. Certainly they study the game, they train and work hard to try to make it all come together. But in the end it either spontaneously lights up or it doesn't.
There are some gifted players who could practice until the day they die but they would never reach Spain's level of team play. For them the chemistry isn't right. Thankfully football isn't a mere quantified formula or a balance sheet, it consists of flesh and blood human beings. Once a successful generation passes, that's it for some time. Entropy happens, mortality an unavoidable fact. You need only look at past football greats from Holland, France, Brazil, Argentina, Hungary and many others, and look at them now.
Six years ago many of us, me included, thought we had a "golden generation" of English players. We were wrong. Only a few turned out to be world class. The rest could no more hack it then than they can now. They didn't make it as a team. Now we must look to a burgeoning crop of youngsters. Only time will tell how good they are individually and collectively and whether any of the older players have it in them to be proper mentors. Meantime, all the tedious statistics and movement diagrams in the world won't make a blind bit of difference, except to make retrospective statements of the obvious. It will still be a matter of que sera sera. Or, as the great Harry Catterick once said, "You don't have to look for the good ones, they stand out." In those terms Spain are hiding their "secrets" in plain sight.
Wouldn't it be nice if - just for once - the British could lose the bitterly cynical streak rooted in our national culture of the last thirty-odd years? Wouldn't it be nice if all the football chauvinist jealousy, petty hatred and hubris could be put aside and Spain's football achievement recognised for what it is, a beautiful and rare athletic triumph? Alas, beauty and sensitivity aren't things we associate with modern Britain. You need only look at the architecture of Canary Wharf to see that.
Moronic criticism of Spain's playing style reminds me of a famous fictional scene in the wonderful Miloš Forman film Amadeus, in which Mozart is congratulated by the Austrian emperor after début performance of the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But, trying to impress the maestro, the emperor, prompted by his jealous court opera director, tells the prodigy the music has "Too many notes." Outraged, Mozart rightly says his music has as many notes as he sees fit, no more, no less......the mark of a truly creative temperament. Unlike Eric Morecambe at an equally famous moment, he was of course playing the right notes in the right order. In Euro 2012, so were Spain.
It is pointless trying to select individual Spanish players for appreciation. More than any other team I have ever seen they play with utter selfless interchangeability, which is why they don't much care who scores. Yes, they have a basic formation......so what? You are just as likely to see a centre midfielder suddenly on either wing or even in defence, if needed. Other teams with fine players try the same "total football" approach and get nowhere near the same sublime fluidity. Trying to stop them is like trying to hold a handful of mercury and with just about the same result. They simply pass you to death. Often their games are a proper product of the nation that gave us the adorno and the rodillas and the cry of ¡Olé! I know at least one English fan who sometimes wanted to join in with that shout. Moreover, like all true champions they kept their entrar a matar for the final and the despatch of Italy.
In the end every team in the tournament played to the best of their abilities. There were only a couple of dud games. It was a wonderful spectacle. Lucky us. But in the end there could be only one winner.
Si, España 2012..... ¡Los campeones más grandes de todo!