Euro 2020:: Remembering the last time Spain were a dominant force on the European stage

Spain's immortal glory was realized after the years of progressive progressSince Spain was a major force in international football, it has been nine years.They will face Italy on Tuesday in the Euro 2020 semifinals at Wembley, hoping to repeat the feats of the legendary team that won the European Championships 2008 and 2012 as well as the World Cup 2010.However, this period of dominance was an exception to the rule. Before those glory years, Spain had experienced disappointment after disappointment. In the decade that followed, these familiar feelings have returned. They have been eliminated in the group stage in three of the three previous tournaments.Luis Enrique's Euro 2020 team is now trying to restore Spain's place at the top European football rankings. They still have a lot of work to do to match their distinguished predecessors.This is the story about the most successful international football team.In front of 14,500 spectators at Windsor Park on 6 September 2006 Spain's serial underachievers lost 3-2 to Northern Ireland in a Euro 2008 qualifier.Nobody back home was surprised. This was a side that had been deceiving for many years. They had never advanced beyond the quarter-finals in a major tournament since winning the 1964 European Championship.Luis Aragones was a veteran La Liga player who was appointed manager of the national team in 2004. He had started his reign with a promising streak of 25 games unbeaten. After a disappointing 16th-round defeat by France in the 2006 World Cup, optimism faded once more.Aragones was convinced that something needed to be done three months later. He was convinced by the Northern Ireland night that something had to be done.It was the beginning of something extraordinary.Rumours of friction and conflict among players from different regions and clubs in Spain have been around for a long time. Some even suggested that Luis Arconada had deliberately made a mistake in goalkeeping and lost the 1984 European Championship final to France. This was despite the fact that Spain did not want to lose.Fernando Morientes, a former Spain striker, recalls that there were many players from Real Madrid and other players from Barcelona. He also noted a distance between players from different teams when they got together. "There was not the same sense of community in daily life that we now see."This time, however, politics wasn't the biggest obstacle to success. It was first and foremost the tactics.Aragones realized that his style of play - a direct or long-ball approach versus Northern Ireland in Spain’s second competitive match following the 2006 World Cup - wasn't working against him.To make the changes he desired, he had to make difficult choices. Aragones was at risk of losing his job because of these choices.Raul, the Real Madrid star and a legend, was more than a player. He was an icon. Many Spaniards considered him the embodiment of their national football.Aragones realized that Raul was not a good fit for Spain's overall plan after the defeat at Belfast. The striker was dropped by Aragones. Madrid's media was in chaos. It was already a terrible thing to do to a legend, but it was made worse by the fact that they did not contact the player to inform them.Raul was just 29 years old. His 102nd game for Spain was the Northern Ireland match. He would not forget it. Aragones was unapologetic.He said, "I didn’t call Raul to tell him he wasn’t selected." He is not an exception. "The simple truth is that the players I have called up are best suited for our needs."The manager tried to reinvent Spain's style, but Madrid's media sharpened its knives.The team was in danger of missing Euro 2008 because they lost to Sweden and Iceland. They travelled to Denmark in October 2007. Aragones would have been destined for certain death if they lost in Aarhus.It was the night that Spanish football was reborn.Spain's football association fined Aragones about 2,000 for racist remarks made about Thierry Henry in 2004. Henry urged Fifa not to follow his lead and impose a harsher sentence.David Villa, a former Barcelona striker, recalls the game and says that "we had everything to lose." We would have looked for a spot in the playoffs if we had lost. Perhaps we wouldn't have made it that far."Aragones' eureka moment was in the 39th minute when a 30-pass move culminated with Sergio Ramos, then fullback, chipping the ball over Denmark's goalkeeper for Spain's second goal. They won 3-1 and qualified to the Euros as group champions.It was also a sign of the arrival in Spain of the new Spain, defined through passes and collective labor.Fernando Hierro was Spain's sporting director during that time. He recalls: "There were a lot tensions before the game due to the importance of this fixture."Denmark were very powerful, but we were calm. Luis was responsible to relay that calm to everyone by saying: "Don't worry, relax. Tomorrow we'll win 3-1).""Incredibly, the scoreline was even correct."Marcos Senna, midfielder, sums up the style change succinctly. "For the first-time Aragones decided to go for small ball players in central."The manager had looked at the various gifts available to him. There are many very talented midfielders. The ball is passed. He used them, but added some spice. He would often say to Xavi, Andres, and Santi Cazorla, "How do I win games?" No, scoring. "Why don't we score more?"The seed was planted to create a style that was both beautiful and efficient."Breaking our curse" - Euro 2008From left to right: Joan Capdevila, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta during Euro 2008 trainingSpain finally won their place in the Euro 2008 finals in Austria/Switzerland, ending a 44-year trophy drought.Joan Capdevila, left-back: "I still remember the day that we arrived in Austria.""We arrived at noon and would normally have gone straight to training. Luis said that we would have free time the next day. Imagine! Imagine!"I believe we won at that moment, because he knew the details would bring us together."Spain cruised through their group and was now facing Italy in the quarter-final. This was a side they'd never faced before in a major competition.Capdevila says, "It added an additional dimension to it." "They are a highly regarded team, and we had the mythoo of being beaten by larger nations every time," Capdevila said. We would win, but we would play well."Spain won the match but couldn't score. As extra time drew near, it was 0-0. The penalty shootout was imminent.Aragones asked Jose Ufarte, his assistant, to prepare for the shootout.Jesus Paredes (Spanish's current fitness coach) takes up the story. "He [Ufarte] began to prepare a list penalty takers, and when he had doubts about one or more of them, he consulted Aragones."The manager asked me to show him." He took Ufarte’s list and wiped it clean. Then, he put Cesc Fabregas in the final taker position.Capdevila recalls Fabregas' spot kick perfectly.He says, "I was at the halfway line and couldn't see where the goal was." Gianluigi Buuffon looked so huge, it was almost like a giant."I don’t know how Cesc could accept that penalty. It would have been me who was liable for the penalty, and I was one among the senior players.Spain and Score were both through.Spain had one of the four penalties, while Italy had missed two.Fabregas took the initiative and calmly slid the ball to Buffon’s left. Finally, Spain had defeated Italy.Paredes approached him back in the dressing room and said that he had a great penalty Cesc. He was so confident.Fabregas responded, "Jesus, that was the first penalty you have taken since I was fourteen."Alfredo Relano is a former editor-in chief of AS, Spain's most influential newspaper on sports. He says that everything changed for him at that moment."After that, I had no doubts in my national team for the Euros and beyond.It was almost like we had broken the curse, and we were playing really well. It was all over Spain. We got over our pessimism.Hierro says that Spain was then a dominant power. This was the moment that changed history.It was a turning point in the lives of generations of Spaniards including Jose Luis Zapatero (then the country's prime Minister), and many others.He says, "People of my age will pay tributes to Cesc forever because they know that I was part of the generation that believed Spain would never reach the quarter-finals."These are the fine margins. Spain's success with penalties has amplified their momentum shiftA liberated Spanish team played against Russia in the semi-finals. They put on their best performance and won 3-0 to reach their first final in 24 years.Capdevila states, "A weight was lifted." "You saw the best of our team in the semi-finals. In that match, we had an overwhelming confidence in ourselves and knew we would make it to the final no matter what.Germany would be next.Aragones gave a team speech the day before the match that is still recalled by all the players.Capdevila recalls, "He got us all together in the middle pitch at training." "He said, "Wallace isn’t going to play. Wallace, what were you thinking? We were all wondering, Wallace?"I believe it was Xavi that said, 'Boss who's Wallace? Are you referring to Ballack?Aragones responded, "Whatever, I call Wallace," We all laughed and that broke the tension in the final.It was Spain's first final after losing to France at Euro 84 – and the chance for a title for the first time since 1964.Aragones' influence was once again crucial on the 29th of June 2008 in Vienna.He told Fernando Torres, striker, that he had spoken to him before the final. When we have the ball, wait to one side and then run in front.Fernando Torres, then a Liverpool player, scored the decisive goal in Spain’s 1-0 win in the 33rd minuteIt is a great description of Torres's ability to breach the German defense and run on to a Xavi throughball to score the winning goal.Villa said that after all the dark days when your country was knocked out of a World Cup or European Championship for one reason or the other, the day came when the country breathed a sigh and declared: Finally!It was only the beginning for Spain. They would go on without Aragones.Aragones was already planning to leave. He moved to Fenerbahce within a week.Aragones announced in September 2007 win or lose that he would call it a day following the summer 2008.His replacement was lined up by the Spanish Football Federation. Vicente del Bosque, former boss of Real Madrid, was the subject of a deal.The Spanish team's plane was stuck in Innsbruck air traffic for approximately an hour, on its way back from winning the Euros. This caused the entire team to break into non-stop chants "Luis Quedate!" ('Luise - Stay!Aragones was clearly moved by the gesture of affection and would have preferred to change his mind. However, the players supported him staying in the position. The decision was made by Hierro, Spain's director for football at the time. He stuck to the original plan of bringing in Del Bosque.Hierro now says, "I have no doubt that the way in which I made my decision was correct." "My conscience is clear about that."Aragones, a controversial figure who brought football success to his nation, died on February 1, 2014 at 75.Capdevila said: "We are all very thankful for what he did. First, to bring together a team full of talent in a great environment and secondly to impart all his football wisdom. He was a great teacher. Because he made a lasting impression on us all, we all have wonderful memories.Take on the worldDel Bosque stated that he had the perfect formula for success from the beginning. He changed only a third of his squad before the 2010 World Cup, and another third before the 2012 European Championship.It was about creating a feeling of continuity and new faces.After a strong qualifying campaign, Spain reached the World Cup in South Africa. They lost their first group game to Switzerland 1-0.Del Bosque says, "It was an enormous setback and almost impossible to imagine as we weren’t prepared for it." "We didn't seek to assign blame. We were collectively to blame for everything.Although the emphasis was on not allowing self-doubts to creep in, tension was evident before the match against Honduras. Villa later said that it was the "most difficult moment in the entire World Cup."Two wins in the two following games were enough to qualify for qualification. Spain would have been eliminated almost surely if they lost.Honduras was defeated 2-0 by Chile, but a draw against Chile could have been enough to see them eliminated from the group.It was hard to believe that there was so much silence in the locker room and on the coach before the match.Del Bosque describes the atmosphere as follows: "I remember a manager who, many years ago, demanded absolute silence in the dressing area an hour before a match. There was no one else to ensure maximum concentration. This group plays loud, energetic music to get them in the mood."On the days against Chile and Honduras, you could hear a fly passing by."Del Bosque was a Real Madrid defensive midfielder during his playing career. He played 18 times in Spain between 1975-1980.Del Bosque informed his players that they had four finals to go after Spain beat Chile 2-1. The quarters, semifinals, and final were the last 16 of the finals.Portugal lost first to Paraguay, who then won the other quarter-final. Spain had never advanced beyond this stage at a World Cup. The wheels almost fell off once more.Capdevila says, "Everyone believed Paraguay was a team that we would easily defeat but nothing could be further from the truth."The Paraguayans played like their lives depended upon it. Villa said that it seemed like there were twenty of them on the pitch. It was a nerve-racking match for Spain. Iker Casillas saved a penalty, and then Xabi Alonso missed a spot kick that had been twice taken.Villa said, "It was an incredible game. It was a game where you knew who would win."After Villa's win against Paraguay, celebrations erupted. One-nil to Spain would soon become a familiar scorelineDel Bosque recalls the incident well: "At times, my legs were literally shaking. This is something you can't control."Villa scored the decisive strike. It was a strange goal that went in after hitting both posts. It almost seemed like the ball was trying to keep out. Villa later said that it was "effectively the golden goal, without doubt my greatest one".Germany was next, followed by Spain, who, like in 2008, reserved their best performance for the semi-finals. They advanced thanks to a Barcelona goal.Half-time was even. Carles Puyol, central defender, mentioned to Xavi, as he was making his way to the changing rooms, that if they got a corner in second half, he should float the ball in around the penalty spot. He knew he could score exactly the same goal as he did in a match against Real Madrid.Puyol was the winner of the second half, sealing Spain's third consecutive victory by a score of 1-0 in the knockout stage. It set up a final match with the Netherlands in Johannesburg.Spain and Netherlands football players look out for the best stage in footballZapatero, a former prime minister, recalls his emotions before the match. He says, "I was with my wife & daughter and we were an overwhelming bundle of nerves." "We have never been so nervous to see each other." "I have never seen my wife so involved in a football game in my entire life."Del Bosque said: "We were defending the country. We were also defending our football style."Capdevila can't recall ever taking part in a more intense game. He thinks that they believed we were more skilled with the ball than them and that aggression was the only way to stop us. It was too much. "I was shocked."Everyone was convinced that the match would be decided by penalties. Arjen Robben had missed a great chance for the Dutch in half-time. Iniesta's goal in the 116th minute rewrote Spanish football's history.Fabregas says, "The ball came at my feet and there were two options." Pass or shoot. It's always been a mystery to me what would have happened if i had shot. It was the best moment in our careers, and I saw Iniesta from a great place.Iniesta held firm to his nerve, and Spain was the 2010 World Cup winnerCapdevila says, "That 70m to the corner flag was my fastest run," "I could have even overtaken Gareth Bale!" It was the most memorable, most beautiful moment in my life. It was a unique experience that is still very memorable."Villa said: "We thought this tournament belonged a Brazilian, an Italian, or a German. We never imagined anyone wearing the red shirt taking that trophy home. It seemed so hard, almost impossible.Capdevila says, "After lifting the cup and doing the lap of honour, one of the most memorable experiences I had on a football field was when I lifted the cup. My long-suffering parents were able to cry in the stadium. My mother had spent 1,200 euros to go to this game."You can still remember many things. Like when your parents used to take you to training every day. It is almost impossible to imagine the sacrifices they made, and how it was rewarded in front of 80,000 people. It was quite emotional to watch my parents weep.Three consecutive wins - History is madeSpain was one of the favourites to win Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland, but not everyone was."Why don’t they shoot more often?" Franz Beckenbauer, the German World Cup-winning manager and captain, remarked on Spain when he was asked.They were, despite all the criticisms, more successful than ever. Zapatero said, "The final Euro 2012 was undoubtedly the most significant moment in the team that Aragones & Del Bosque built." The team was like an automated clockwork mechanism."Spain defeated Italy to win the final 4-0, becoming the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments.Del Bosque described his team's performance during the final as "the greatest game we have ever played".Hierro says: "They saw themselves in the Spain shirt as winners and when they came together to be full internationals, it was already a habit of winning."It was beautiful, but very difficult for them to achieve that. That was due to Aragones' gamble with so-called small player in Euro 2008."They were all very comfortable together and that makes it easier when you win. But the fact they were so familiar with the philosophy of football made them extremely powerful."Torres, the man who scored the goal that won Euro 2008, celebrates with his daughter at the pitch in 2012.Capdevila summarizes the feelings of the generation by saying, "Whatever I have had the chance to experience are stories that I will tell my kids and my grandchildren in the years to come.""I want to tell them. It has been amazing. I was privileged to share a dressing room space with some of the most talented players in the world.The dream of winning a fourth consecutive title was soon dashed. This all-conquering Spanish team was defeated by Brazil's 2014 World Cup.Did the players feel complacent? Old guard loyalty was misplaced. Oder simply the end for a team which had dominated the world of football for six years?It was likely a little bit of everything.Del Bosque wanted that generation to be given a farewell on the most important stage.The beginning of the end was the same as the road to all-conquering glory: with the goal of astonishing brilliance.It was Robin van Persie's diving header that brought the Netherlands level. This incredible finish came after Xabi Alono had led Spain in their first game. Spain would be defeated 5-1.It was clear that the party was over for the side that was forever remembered as the best in its generation, one that redefined how football should be played. It was a great party.This article was published in its original form on June 3, 2003.