Spain's back on top -- get used to it
VIENNA, Austria -- Dr. Monkey-Be-Gone. Or How Spain Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Its Own Distinct Brand of Soccer.
Sunday's triumph over Germany -- about as one-sided as a 1-0 can be -- wasn't just a case of Spain finally hauling in some silverware after 44 years. It was the culmination of a process which had been building through the tournament: The practical coming-of-age of a nation which, based on tradition, size and know-how, should rank right up there with the game's elite, but in fact had become a by-word of underachievement.
"We showed the world that we are not weak mentally, that we can hold our own, that we can succeed in adversity," Cesc Fŕbregas told me after the match. "Now, however, we want to look ahead. I think this can be the first of many. Why not? We've broken the spell.
The Arsenal midfielder, toiletry kit in one hand, cold beer in the other, looked relaxed and confident. But then, he usually does. At 21, he can afford to. He wasn't a part of the heartbreak of years past and, because he hasn't lived in Spain since the age of 16, he's relatively isolated from the relentless self-doubting which the Spanish media regularly throws up every two years.
Even before the game you sort of knew which way the wind was going to blow. Spanish fans were roundly outnumbered by German ones, but you could tell the latter were far from confident. Michael Ballack hadn't trained for the previous two days due to a calf injury (he would grit his teeth and play through the pain, clearly not at his best). Germany had been lucky against Turkey in the semifinal. And coach Joachim Löw's tactical scheme (he began with a 4-4-2 and then switched to a 4-2-3-1) looked far from reassuring.
As for the Spaniards, the mood was jolly all around. Before the semifinal against Russia, I heard them gleefully modify their age-old chant into a witty Hijos de Putin! And their numbers were swelled by the neutrals, most of whom, for obvious reasons, supported Spain.
With striker David Villa out, the ancient sage Luis Aragonés moved to a 4-1-4-1 system (which was actually his original plan before the tournament, before Villa's phenomenal form forced him into a rethink). In came Fŕbregas, giving the German holding line -- Thomas Hitzlsperger and Torsten Frings -- an additional headache (as if the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Marcos Senna and the immense, magnificent, Xavi weren't enough).
It was Xavi who set up Fernando Torres' goal, El Nińo brilliantly pouncing on the ball, punishing Philipp Lahm for his indecision and tucking it past a frantic Jens Lehmann. It was really all that was needed -- although to be fair, Spain could have scored a couple more.
"We stayed in the game and we're proud of that," Frings said afterward. "But when your opponent plays so well, there's only so much you can do."
Indeed. But the difference between Germany and Spain wasn't just talent. Aragonés didn't just win the tactical battle against Löw, he absolutely destroyed his opponent. Germany looked ragged and confused in the second half (so much for the old stereotypes about German discipline and tactical rigor).
Löw sent on the big men -- first Kevin Kuranyi then Mario Gómez -- to exploit the obvious size advantage against the Spanish. As a strategy, that's fine -- if not always pretty -- but if you do send on the target men, you need some notion of how you're going to get them the ball. Which means you either hoof long balls up the pitch or you run at defenders, trying to get free kicks.
Germany did neither. Even late in the second half, it was as if it was trying to outpass Spain (a futile idea, made all the more senseless by the fact that Spain was pressing effectively in midfield). When the ball did come forward, it was usually hit into wide areas, where the ponderous Kuranyi-Gómez combination was never going to find it.
Still, on a night like that, you did feel as if even if Germany equalized, Spain would just come back and score another. Such was the obvious difference between the two.
So what's next? Is this really some kind of turning point for a nation which has long seemed to have serious issues of self-belief preferring the exotic to the home-grown? (Witness the obsession Spain's big clubs seem to have with appointing foreign managers.)
We'll see. What's not in doubt is that, with a European Championship in hand, a relatively young team (it's easy to forget because they've been around for ages, but Iker Casillas is 27 and Torres 24) and a league which is likely to add none other than Cristiano Ronaldo to its ranks, well ... it's a good time to be Spanish.