This time, winning was not enough. We had doubted, we wondered whether they had been consumed by their own indulgence. Had a stubborn desire to re-invent the wheel rendered them impotent? We fretted needlessly. Given the ultimate stage, the production came together as though the stars were in perfect alignment. It was all a prelude to a dream. Spain, with their gears and levers and bells and whistles, elevated the game to a higher plane. They took us on a journey beyond imagination. They hijacked the possible and made it reality. Seldom has a vision been realised so resplendently. Greatness is often bestowed only with hindsight, yet here we understood the privilege of witnessing something extraordinary. In a tournament which regularly sparkled and shimmered, the best was saved for last.
This Spanish team, the first international side to win three consecutive competitions, is redefining our footballing perceptions. It challenges the orthodoxy on physique, its nimble practitioners overturning the modern reliance on power and strength. It preaches that possession of the ball is the most cherished quality of them all. Its emphasis on space creation and changes of pace leaves traditional more rigid formations obsolete. In this there are echoes of the Dutch ‘Total Football’ of the 1970s, yet there is a more clearly defined structure. The famous clip of Carlos Alberto’s goal for the sublime Brazil in the Mexico World Cup final at the start of that decade features the immortal commentary line, ‘they just take it in turns to give an exhibition’, but this is not Spain. There is no showboating; even their most excessive spells of passing are exploratory, probing the opposition for a chink in the armour. It is this that gave rise to the absurd accusation that they were becoming boring. The Italians, themselves no strangers to this particular allegation, may beg to differ.
Have they presided over the death of the centre forward? Not entirely, since developments in the role of the traditional number nine were already well advanced, but they have created a template for abstract thinking in the attacking third. Italy’s defenders were unsure whether to mark space or track the runners as Del Bosque’s men encircled their midfield diamond and passed around it. With Pirlo unable to impose himself on the game, Xavi occupying a more advanced role and restricting his compass, the Azzuri struggled to maintain their shape. Jordi Alba in particular exploited their narrow scope and shuttled forward menacingly. The lack of a defined target became far more of a problem for the opposition than it ever was for Spain. Once they had established their advantage, and with Prandelli’s decisive response fatally debilitated by the unfortunate injury to Motta which left Italy a man short, they could have opted for ball retention but chose a loftier calling. The progressive Pedro and Torres were introduced and the result could have been anything. The final whistle seemed like an act of compassion.
Exhausted and broken, the Italians might reflect that the system they used when the teams met at the group stage could have been a better option, though the Spanish tempo was higher this time. Nevertheless their advance through the tournament gave them the confidence to believe they had the technical ability to match their eventual conquerors. Besides, the pitfalls of showing too much respect had been amply demonstrated in their own semi-final, where Germany had defaulted from their fluid game and played straight into the hands of an inspired Pirlo. Ozil’s deployment was questionable, he drifted out wide where he was less capable of moulding the play, as was Schweinsteiger’s fitness. The pace, so crucial against the dogged Greeks, was sacrificed and Italy punished this unnecessary tinkering, adding a rapier thrust which had been missing against England. It came in the mercurial guise of Balotelli and the Germans had no answer. Their young team was vibrant and full of promise; this may prove a salutary lesson in the harsh realities of tournament play. Few could deny that Italy deserved to reach the final and that they did so without resort to the dull catenaccio style that once defined them added further lustre to a fine competition.
How slender the margins. The width of the woodwork allowed Spain the opportunity to seize their moment. It could so easily have gone the other way. Bruno Alves saw his penalty ricochet to infinity; Fabregas was treated more kindly by the goalframe and wheeled away in delight. So Portugal’s involvement in Euro 2012 came to an abrupt stop, but at least they too had given it a real go. The first semi-final was an absorbing affair and it was the smaller of the Iberian neighbours who made much of the running. With Ronaldo prowling dangerously and Nani causing alarm on the flanks, chances came and went but there was no breakthrough. On this occasion Spain chose to give a masterclass in defending and, as Portugal ran out of energy and inspiration, gradually asserted as the match went into extra time. Still, they may have had cause to regret not stepping it up earlier but, having demonstrated their patience and strength of character, found reward in the shoot-out. Their date with destiny was secure.
Already the concerns over hosting the tournament in Poland and Ukraine seem long ago. The spectre of racism and hooliganism only briefly threatened the agenda. Conceivably this largely joyful event will have a positive legacy where those twin scourges are concerned. The football was delightful throughout. These biennial gatherings so often flatter to deceive but the games were variously exciting, compelling and thoughtful. England learned just how far their journey to enlightenment must take them but Hodgson’s team at least provided some moments, Welbeck’s inventive goal a highlight. We must resist the retreat into tribal antagonism and transform the way we think about the game. This may be some hope, but it is the only hope. The standard of officiating was probably the best ever seen at a major competition. That so little time was devoted to debating referees is testament to their contribution in allowing matches to flourish. Our apprehensions were unfounded. The experience has been supremely uplifting.
But it is the poetic beauty of Andres Iniesta and this blessed generation of Spanish heroes that will provide our most vivid memories. Our recollections of Euro 2012 will be forever bathed in red and gold. The effortless grace of their touch and mesmeric rhythm of their flowing motion recalled a higher art form. They will join those fabled teams that sustain footballing discourse across the generations, and, most frighteningly of all, there is no reason to suspect their story is complete.