This is the sixth in a series of ten articles, released weekly, counting down the ten greatest teams in the history of football. The teams were selected based on the trophies they won, the cultures they created, and the impact they had on the game of football.
Unlike Germany, Argentina, Italy, and Brazil, success has never been synonymous with the Spanish national team. Though they house two of the best clubs in the history of the game, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the country always stuttered to produce results in major tournaments. Before 2008, their only trophy came in the 1964 European Championship – a four-team tournament that took place in Madrid and Barcelona. That year, Spain beat the USSR 2-1 to win their first and only international trophy for the next half-century.
In the late 20th century, as Germany blitzed their way across Europe, Brazil showcased their beautiful play, Argentina unleashed Maradonna, and even England brought football back home to Wembley, Spain sat on the sidelines, struggling to compete. Underachievers for decades, Spain resembled the Charlie Brown of international football.
In the knockout round of the 2006 World Cup, Spain was brushed aside by France in a 3-1 loss. Though their squad included promising talent like Sergio Ramos, Fernando Torres, David Villa, and Cesc Fabregas, Spain had once again been ousted by one of their European big brothers. Everyone believed Spain’s young team was merely a novelty act that would never stand alone at the top of world football – everyone except for Luis Aragones.
Returning to Spain in defeat, Aragones, Spain’s 67-year-old manager, came up with a plan to change his country’s tactical philosophy and rewrite the record books in Spain’s favor.
Aragones’ first move was perhaps his most controversial. Quickly following Spain’s exit from the 2006 World Cup, Luis Aragones dropped Raul from the squad. Just as Aime Jacquet decided to cut Eric Cantona from the French team that failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Aragones was ridding the national team of their most prolific scorer.
Raul, who Sir Alex Ferguson deemed “the best player in the world” in the early 2000s, had already established himself as a legend for Real Madrid. When he left Los Blancos in 2010, Raul had won six La Liga Championships, three Champions League trophies, and scored 323 goals in 741 appearances. As legends go, Raul was one of the best.
Aragones, however, thought differently.
Much of Luis Aragones decision to drop the star striker rested on his insistence on binning Spain’s historical play style. Spain’s previous tactical philosophy had been to focus their play in the wide areas of the pitch, sending crosses into the box for strikers – like Raul – to deliver into the back of the net. Nicknamed “La Furia,” Spain’s style of play relied on aggression and practicality. Though these tactics thrived at the tail end of the 20th century, the new millennium brought about an entirely different method of play. “La Furia” struggled to produce results against the patient, technical playing styles of modern football.
Realizing the need for change, Aragones based his tactics around small, ball playing midfielders. These industrial engines in the center of the field would patiently command the area, waiting to exploit the opposition’s mistakes.
Spain’s brand new tactic was presented to the rest of Europe for the first time in the European Championship of 2008. Aragones deployed a 4-4-2 consisting of the pacy midfielders around whom his new philosophy was based. Players like Iniesta and Xavi who were making names for themselves at Barcelona now dominated Spain’s midfield. Whereas Barcelona players dominated the center of the pitch, Real Madrid held the most real estate in Spain’s defense. Ramos and Casillas, as well as Barcelona’s Puyol, created a disciplined defense that conceded only three goals in the six-game tournament.
Spain asserted themselves quickly, winning each of their group stage matches against Sweden, Russia, and Greece. The knockout rounds, however, would not present such malleable competition.
Though Spain received a favorable draw for the group stage, their quarter-final opponent presented a challenge of the highest degree: the Italians. Not only had Italy won the World Cup two years earlier, the Italians had never lost to Spain in five encounters at major tournaments.
The Italians, playing their traditional, defense-based system of patient attacking formed an effective barrier against Spain’s quick passing. Ninety minutes was not enough time to decide a winner and, after extra time, the scoreboard remained 0-0. The match would be decided on penalties. The penalties presented a battle between two goalkeepers – two captains – one who had already established his legendary status another who would do so in the next couple of years. Buffon and Casillas put all of Europe on the edge of its seat, waiting to see who would make the winning save. Ultimately, after Casillas stopped both De Rossi and Di Natale, Spain was a single penalty away from victory. A 21-year-old midfielder who was making a name for himself at Arsenal – Cesc Fabregas – sent Spain to the semi-finals with a strike past an outstretched Buffon into the bottom right corner.
The semi-finals lined Spain up against the same Russian side whom they had beaten in the group stage 4-1 thanks to a David Villa hat-trick. Though the first-half ended scoreless, Spain flew out of the locker room for the final 45 minutes. Scoring in the 50th, 73rd, and 82nd minutes Spain staved off the Russians from staging an upset.
For the final, Spain faced its strongest opponents yet: Germany.
Marcos Senna said of the Spanish mindset before the final, “We really wanted to win this trophy for Spain. We’d not won it for 44 years, so we thought it was about time. But having to play Germany – a team with great tradition – obviously makes you feel nervous.”
After a cagey opening third of the match, Luis Aragones’ men broke the deadlock. A result of Aragones’ midfield concentrated tactic, Xavi found Fernando Torres – then still scoring for fun at Liverpool – with a slicing through ball. Torres muscled his way around and Philip Lahm and dinked the ball over a sliding Jens Lehmann. He may not have known it then, but Torres had just scored the most important goal in Spanish History.
Seventy minutes later, after the confetti rained down onto the pitch and Spain received their victors' medals, they had one man to thank for their first major trophy in 44 years – Luis Aragones.
Casillas said of the old man on the sidelines, “Aragones was more like a grandfather because of his age, someone we had a great affection for, one of the few people who truly believed in us.”
Though Aragones’ revolution had delivered Spain success, the 69-years-old manager decided to hang up the clipboard and leave on a high.
As a replacement, the Spanish federation appointed Vincente Del Bosque – the man who had won every competition at club level with Real Madrid at the turn of the century.
Del Bosque said of taking the job, “It was the best moment to take over the team. Lots of people told me it was a terrible time to take the job, but I was convinced Spain had a good squad. It would be awful to arrive in a moment of defeat after another failure by the national team.”
Though he admits he was excited to lead the Spanish National Team, Del Bosque knew that changes had to be made: “One of the figures of 2008 was Marcos Senna. Senna was a vital player for Spain back then. He didn’t come to the world cup – it was painful, a very painful decision for us. But, Sergio Busquets had arrived.”
Busquets was not the only player whom Del Bosque recruited from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side. Pedro and Pique were also added to the lineup, infusing the squad with the necessary tools to align the National Team with Guardiola’s trophy-winning philosophy.
Perhaps the most vital element of both Barcelona and the Spanish National team was their almost identical, three-man midfield. Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets/Alonso established a perfect balance of physicality, tactical awareness, and threatening goal-scoring capabilities.
Marcos Senna said in praise of Iniesta, “He doesn’t get nervous at any stage, its like he has magnets in his feet. He’s just a top-class player.”
Though Vincente Del Bosque had assembled a lethal squad of players who won every qualifying match on the road to the South African World Cup, his team was shocked with a 1-0 loss in their opening match against Switzerland. Del Bosque, however, was unphased: “Even with that setback, we were always quite positive. We knew that if we won the next six games, we could be champions.”
Spain took a significant step towards achieving its goal on the back of David Villa’s dynamic performances against Honduras and Chile. In the match against Chile, Villa scored what Torres would later deem “the best goal of the tournament – the most difficult one by far.” After the Chilean keeper came well out of his box to clear the ball, Villa found the goal gaping halfway up the field. With his first touch, Villa careened the ball over the sprinting goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
In the quarter-finals against Paraguay, Spain had a chance to achieve something never before accomplished by a Spanish side – advance to the Semi-Finals of a World Cup. Though Spain were strong favorites entering the match, they were very nearly eliminated after Paraguay were awarded a penalty in the second half. Though Iker Casillas made a comfortable save, diving to his right, he credited substitute keeper Pepe Reina’s intense studying of the opposition.
Reina said of his prediction, “With Oscar Cardozo, I knew how he took penalties as I’d faced a few of them. In tight, tense matches he’d always choose his safe side – always to the left of the goalkeeper.”
Casillas held all of his faith in his backup, “With Pepe’s help, I knew he’d go that way.”
The tables soon turned in the match, and it was Spain who was awarded a penalty. After Xabi Alonso slammed the ball out of the keeper’s reach and into the back of the net, Spain celebrated like three-year-olds on Christmas. They had finally reached the semi-finals of a World Cup – or so they thought. The referee whistled the penalty away, accusing the Spanish side of encroachment. Now, Alonso would have to score against the Paraguayan goalkeeper for the second time in under a minute. He says of the situation, “With the second penalty, you have more doubts. Should I go down the middle again or should I go a different way.”
After a tense run-up, Alonso’s shot was blocked. Spain was back to square one.
In the 83rd minute, Spain finally broke the deadlock thanks to, who else, David Villa – his fifth goal of the competition.
Vincente Del Bosque emphasized the relief of reaching the semi-final to the character of the national team: “We’d overcome what had been a barrier for our national team for years – getting past the quarter-finals. I think when we broke that barrier, we broke old ways of thinking that we were inferior to other nations.”
The semi-finals presented a rematch of the European Championship Final against Germany from two years earlier. After 90 minutes, the match finished with the same score. After halftime, with the game still scoreless, Carlos Puyol told Xavi, “We’ve taken three or four corners. If you put the ball near the penalty spot, I’ll come running in, and we can cause a problem.”
Xavi executed his orders and, in the 73rd minute, Puyol headed Spain into the World Cup Final with a thunderous effort.
After the match, Joachim Low, Germany’s head coach, who would lead his country to a World Cup of their own four years later, met with Vincente Del Bosque to praise the Spanish side. He said, “Congratulations. You’re the best team in the world – not the best team in the world – the best team I’ve ever seen.”
On July 11th, 2010, Spain took the field in Johannesburg alongside the Netherlands. Though the Dutch have been heralded in the past for their stunning method of “total football,” they adopted a physicality based approach for the final. With crunching tackles flying around the field, vuvuzelas swarming the stadium , and no goals in the first 90 minutes, the game was by no means a thriller. It was a brutal affair. Fourteen yellow cards were awarded (nine to the Netherlands and five to Spain) as well as a single red card that was given to John Heitinga. The most notable tackle, which absurdly only received a yellow card, came in the form of Nigel de Jong’s studs-up kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso. As tackles go, de Jong’s “flying lotus” would be more suited to a Karate Kid movie than to the World Cup Final.
After Heitinga was sent off at the end of the first half of extra time, Spanish belief grew. Del Bosque recalls that “the players were more convinced than me that we were going to win.”
In the second half of extra time, the players proved themselves right. After Jesus Navas torched 30 meters down the right side of the wing, the ball was played back into Iniesta who continued Spain’s momentum down the field with a backheel to Fabregas. Fabregas returned the ball to Jesus who gave the ball to Fernando Torres, who was stationary near the left touchline. Torres lifted his head and sent the ball into the box towards Iniesta. Though his pass was not strong enough, it provided a deflection off a Dutch defender that fell into the path of Fabregas.
Fabregas said of his next pass to the onrushing Iniesta, “I’m not saying it was easy, but I was in a good position to make the diagonal pass.”
The perfect team goal had been constructed. From one end of the pitch to another, nearly half of the Spanish side had contributed in the buildup. All that was left was for someone to poke the ball in the back of the net.
And Andres Iniesta did more than that. He recalls, “Everything stops, and we’re alone – just me and the ball. It’s difficult to listen to silence, but at that moment I heard the silence, and I knew the ball was going into the back of the net.
Iniesta thrashed home the half-volley, establishing Spain as the 8th nation in history to win the World Cup.
Spain’s dominance in the World Cup cannot be overstated. They conceded the fewest goals (2) of any previous champion and did so with a poised and confident brand of football rarely displayed by international teams.
Joachim Low was right, this was the best team fans had ever seen .
And Spain was not done yet.
In 2012, Spain entered the Poland/Ukraine European Championships as the deserved favorites.
Del Bosque, eager to become only the second manager in history to win both the World Cup and the Euros, deployed a bold tactic to solve the glaring problem that resulted from David Villa’s absence in the tournament. As a solution, Del Bosque placed Cesc Fabregas in the daunting position of “false 9.”
Del Bosque says of the decision, “Fabregas has great mobility, but he’s not your typical striker. He moved a lot. He dropped to link with our midfield and allowed us to control the space where the opposition would start their attacks.”
This unorthodox tactic of placing a midfielder in the position of center forward somehow fit Spain’s identity as a team. Going all the way back to Luis Aragones’ decision to drop the wide-playing tactics of the 20th century and base Spain’s play upon quick, fast playing midfielders, Del Bosque’s 2012 tactic appears as the next evolution of the trophy-winning strategy.
After defeating Ireland and Croatia to top their group, Spain’s road to the final would be a tale that paralleled the failures and successes that established them as one of the greatest sides in history.
A quarter-final victory over France – the team that ousted Luis Aragones’ men from the 2006 World Cup – and a semi-final that was won by a Cesc Fabregas penalty kick after extra time – just as he had done against Italy in 2008 – sent the Spaniards to their third final in three consecutive tournaments.
In the final, Spain overwhelmed Italy. After David Silva opened the scoring, Jordi Alba, Fernando Torres, and Juan Mata all added goals of their own. Spain was confident, precise, and engaged throughout the match.
Spain had achieved the unthinkable. In the span of four short years from 2008 to 2012, Spain had developed a new philosophy, brought in young players, and benefited from two expert managers to win three consecutive International Tournaments – a feat that has never been accomplished.
In 2014, Spain met a fitting end after a 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in the opening match of the Brazilian World Cup sent them spiraling into a quick exit. Though they left Brazil embarrassed, failing to live up to their previous success, they exited as one of the greatest teams to ever grace the world with their football.
An explanation for Spain’s explosive dominance throughout two Euro’s and a World Cup may be found in their players and coaches’ dissemination throughout Europe. Whereas in previous decades Spanish players remained in their home country – much like English players today – the early 2000s saw young talent develop abroad. Cesc Fabregas burst onto the scene as a pacy, mullet-haired midfielder for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Xabi Alonso won the Champions League under Rafa Benitez at Liverpool. It is this development of Spain as a footballing nation led Juan Mata to deem the country “the footballing reference for the world.”
The country’s progression, as Del Bosque says, “Is the key factor to Spain’s success. Now, the concept of playing Spain is associated with possession, keeping the ball, and good technique.”
To carry out the most dominating reign in the history of International football, Spain took inspiration from all over the world to create a brand new philosophy from the aging soul of a deep football culture.