Column: Spanish masters turn football into art
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -Even in slow-motion replays, Spain still seemed to play at 1 million miles an hour. The Italians? Well, they looked like they'd been locked inside a pinball machine, which, in a way, they had.
Is it heresy to liken the first team to ever defend the European Championship to other geniuses - Pablo Picasso, Antoni Gaudi and so on - that Spain has shared with us over the centuries?
If you're a fan of football as art, then surely not. And to think there were those who accused Spain of being "boring'' at Euro 2012, of playing selfish and tiresome keep-ball instead of devastatingly effective football.
Eat your words. Because, as it turned out, Spain was saving its grand finale for a warm night in Kiev that ensured that Ukraine and Poland got a send-off fitting for the fabulous tournament they co-hosted, the first Euros to venture this far east.
Fizz! A through ball from Xavi Hernandez, delivered with the clockwork timing of a Swiss watch. Bang! Jordi Alba, haring in at top speed, took Xavi's gift of the pass and turned it into a goal. Simple. 2-0.
And this wasn't even over and out. There were still 49 minutes of this lopsided final to play. Spain wasn't done, not even close.
Even the erratic Fernando Torres found the net - a measure of how totally Spain dismantled the Italians whose unlikely trip to the final few would have banked on but which, given the flair and creativity they oozed to get this far, they fully deserved.
Italy arrived at Euro 2012 under the cloud of a match-fixing scandal at home. It can leave Ukraine with its head held high. Coach Cesare Prandelli achieved his goal of demonstrating that Italians can move beyond the defensive football they were long famed for. Only, in the final, Spain never gave them enough time on the ball to reproduce the quick and effective attacks they mounted in previous matches.
And Spain's goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, proved unbeatable. He let in just one goal all tournament, in Spain's first game - a 1-1 draw with, as it happened, Italy. In the rematch, he wasn't going to let that happen again.
To be fair, Italy played the last half-hour of the final down a man. Thiago Motta was carried off injured when Prandelli had already used his three substitutions. But would it really have made any difference had Italy been at full strength for 90 minutes? Not against this Spanish armada, not playing like this.
When Juan Mata made it 4-0, Italy striker Mario Balotelli sank to his haunches. His two semifinal goals got Italy to this game. Mostly starved of the ball by Spain, he couldn't get Italy's hands on the Henri Delaunay cup.
Aficionados will debate how Spain, the 2012 vintage, matches up against other great sides that seared their way into football history. Did it have the sustained brilliance of Pele's Brazil that scored 19 times in six games to win the 1970 World Cup? Was it even as good as the Spain side that won the Euros four years ago? And, if you're really being picky, how might it also fare against some of the best club teams in football history? They include Barcelona, which supplied seven of Spain's 23 players here and a fair chunk of its football philosophy based on quick passing and movement and starving opponents of the ball.
But the facts of Spain's unprecendented achievements speak for themselves - Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 in succession, a first.
And Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Torres and Xabi Alonso now also form their own exclusive club of players who played in two winning Euro finals.
"We are very happy for all the country and for us. I think we deserved it, we were superior to Italy. We played a complete game and perhaps the best of the entire Eurocup,'' Xavi said. "We made history and now we have to enjoy it with all those who supported us and our families.''
The first half Sunday, especially, was Spain at its best, passing, passing and passing again, gradually moving the ball up field from the back with relentless patience to mount sustained attacks on Gianluigi Buffon's goal, splitting and dizzying his defenders with balls through every gap they left.
Who needs strikers? Spain proved at Euro 2012 that it can largely do without. David Villa, Spain's all-time leading scorer, top scorer at Euro '08 and joint top scorer at the 2010 World Cup, missed this tournament as he recovers from surgery on his left leg. He watched the final from the posh seats in the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.
Torres, an unconvincing stand-in for Villa, only came on for Fabregas when the game, in essence, was done, with just 15 minutes left to play. The midfield creativity of Fabregas, Silva and Iniesta together lends one to think that Spain will manage just fine at the 2014 World Cup should Xavi, who'll be 34 then, be unable to play a major part.
Spain's four in the final took the Euro 2012 goal-total to 76. Spain scored 12 of those, the most of any of the 16 teams, for an average of two goals per game. Those are the exact same numbers Spain racked up in winning Euro 2008. So, on that evidence, Spain isn't showing signs of slowing down or weakening, such is the depth of its talent.
Other top teams in world football, notably Argentina led by three-time world player of the year Lionel Messi, and 2014 World Cup host Brazil, will look at this tournament and see reasons to feel optimistic.
The Netherlands, the losing 2010 World Cup finalist, flopped out of the Euro 2012 group stage, losing all its games and scoring just twice. Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk promptly resigned.
France, the 1998 world champion and 2000 European champion, is also in disarray. Coach Laurent Blanc stepped down after his team squabbled amongst itself at Euro 2012 and lost to Sweden and then Spain in a miserable quarterfinal showing.
Losing 2008 finalist Germany looked to be on fire at Euro 2012, scoring almost at will, before the team packed with talent and pace suddenly misfired horrendously in its semifinal against Italy, losing 2-1, overwhelmed by Italy's passing and the finishing of Balotelli. And England was just England, perpetually unable to live up to its own self-important expectations.
But Spain, well, that's a whole different ball game.
Not just football, but art.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester