KIEV: The praise has been raining down on Spain from all quarters following their 4-0 destruction of Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final, and the question on everyone’s lips is “are they the best team ever to have played the game?”
A scientist would say it is a question that cannot be answered. The Spanish team which triumphed with such panache in Kiev did not have the same XI as the side who won the World Cup two years ago or who began their unprecedented treble by winning the Euro 2008.
Fans, however, are not restricted by such pedantry. They are free to compare teams in whichever way they like – by a particular match, tournament, or even era.
The bald statistics seem to make an incontestable case for the Spanish team of 2008-2012.
They are the only team to successfully defend the European Championship, claimed by some to be a harder tournament to win than the World Cup, a trophy they also lifted in 2010.
They did not ship a single goal in any of the knockout round matches in those three tournaments, conceding in only one of the six games played in Ukraine and Poland. Their 4-0 triumph was the biggest winning margin in any World Cup or Euro final.
The nearest any nation has come to matching that level of consistency was the West Germany side who won the 1972 European title and the 1974 World Cup, making the final of the 1976 European Championships before losing on penalties to Czechoslovakia.
That team, built on the defensive class of Franz Beckenbauer and the phenomenal strike rate of center forward Gerd Mueller, triumphed in an era when Johan Cruyff’s classy Netherlands were vying for supremacy.
West Germany also won the 1980 European Championship, reaching the final of the 1982, 86 and 90 World Cups as part of an era of unsurpassed dominance. A reunified Germany also claimed victory at Euro 1996.
The only link between the side of the early ’70s and their successors was Beckenbauer, who won the World Cup as captain in 1974 and as coach in 1990.
The only team to match Spain’s haul of three successive major continental titles were Argentina, who won the then-annual Copa America in 1945, 46 and 47.
Italy’s back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 1934 and 1938 came when the tournament was still in its infancy, and limited participation in the competition makes it very difficult to compare with modern equivalents.
Any European country operating before the advent of their own continental competition in 1960 were obviously limited to the World Cup for tangible evidence of their power, which counts heavily against the Hungary team of the 1950s who many claim to have revolutionized the way the game was played. Inspired by Ferenc Puskas, Hungary were undoubtedly the dominant force of their age and put together a run of 51 games over six years from 1952-56 with only one defeat.
They won the 1952 Olympic football tournament, chalking up stunning 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England. The single blot on their record came in the final of the 1954 World Cup when they lost to a West Germany side they had hammered 8-3 in the group stage.
The Hungarian Revolution two years later brought an end to the team, ending any realistic chance of claiming the World Cup win they needed to put them on the same level with the greatest teams of all.
Brazil then took up the mantle, winning the 1958, 62 and 70 World Cups, though only Pele was ever present. If that makes it difficult to consider the Brazil team of that era as one entity – and they had a 40-year barren spell in the Copa America to further undermine their credentials – then concentrating on the 1970 side is more fruitful territory.
Held up by many observers to be the benchmark by which all others are compared, the 1970 team were undoubtedly a complete package in every area. Carlos Alberto, Tostao, Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Pele are names that still ring in our ears almost half a century after they tore through a strong Italy side 4-1 in a commanding performance in the final.
To suggest at the time that in future years a team playing largely without any forwards would be considered as possibly superior would have been laughable, yet Spain’s own redefinition of the way the game is played and the rewards it has reaped, make a strong case.
True, they have needed penalty shootouts en route to both their European triumphs and were beaten by Switzerland in the group phase of the World Cup. But they have consistently overcome those troubles to claim victory on every occasion. Not even the “total football” Hungarian or Dutch sides had such depth of talent, where every player in every position is an example of the art of touch, control, passing and spatial awareness.
“We are talking about a great generation of footballers,” said their victorious coach Vicente Del Bosque. “This is a great era for Spanish football.”
For all football.