Spain's Supremacy Has Eclipsed It's Enigma

Somewhere in the last five years, Spain went box office. It doesn't matter precisely when, the fact is they did. And their scarlet shirt, trimmed with its golden braid, has become more of an emblem of beautiful football in the  21st Century than Brazilian yellow or Dutch orange.

Five years ago this week, Spain lost 1-0 to  Romania in a friendly in Cadiz. It was their third defeat in three months. The other two were even more painful, to Northern Ireland and Sweden in Euro 2008 qualifiers. The next game was against England at Old Trafford. Spain won it 1-0 and did not lose again for 35 games. This record-equalling run stretched more than two years and contained a sequence of 24 wins in 25 games. The blip in this emphatic quarter century was a goalless draw in the 2008 European Championship quarter-final against Italy. Spain won it on penalties.

When defeat finally came against the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup, the European crown was already in the bag. The world title followed. Spain reached Euro 2012 without dropping a point. All done while thrilling audiences and breathing life into the spluttering beast that is international football. Just how did they get so good? Or, more  pertinently, how did the nation once capable of eclipsing England's spectacular underachievement crack the enigma?

Roberto Martinez traces the changes back to the mid-1990s, a time when Spain united in pursuit of sporting excellence in the afterglow of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Spanish football decided to prioritise technical development but the turning point came when manager Luis Aragones took a leap of faith for that generation, dropping Raul Gonzales and standing firm amid criticism. Raul would win the last of his 102 caps in the 3-2 defeat in Belfast in September 2006.

"The biggest decision Aragones made was to get rid of Raul. There had always been friction between the Real Madrid and Barcelona players and accusations that the Real Madrid players were getting better treatment. They never played as a team. The togetherness wasn't there but Xavi Hernandez and Iker Casillas created that. It helped that there was such depth of talent that there was no big leader. At club level, Real Madrid and Barcelona always had foreigners who were the leaders and Spanish players were always followers. When Spain played against those leaders, like Hristo Stoichkov, they would find it difficult. That's changed. Casillas, Xavi, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are the leaders," says Wigan manager Martinez.

It is impossible to ignore the Barcelona factor in this rise. Seven of the team that started in the World Cup final were from Barca and Vicente del Bosque has named eight of Pep Guardiola's players in the 23-man squad for Wembley. Barcelona have played football with a heavy Dutch accent since Johan Cruyff arrived in the Catalan city in 1973 and they raise footballers at their academy La Masia under this philosophy. They play a modern version of Total Football. Tiki-taka, it has been branded. With such reliance on those from the Nou Camp, Spain can barely help but perform with the same appeal.

"They are technically gifted and comfortable on the ball. They receive the ball between the lines and keep possession. They are very fit. Off the ball they work hard and on it they express themselves," Martinez added.

Starlets continue to emerge at Barca but other Spanish clubs are nurturing talent, too, such as Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain at Athletic Bilbao. And in such a position of strength, there is no clamour to rush tender youngsters through the ranks. Guardiola did not mean to be rude about Jack Wilshere earlier this year, when he said he liked Arsenal's teenage midfielder but had a few like him at Barcelona B. He did, including Thiago Alcantara and Oriol Romeu, who is now at Chelsea.

Spanish players are allowed to complete their education - technically and tactically. Off the field, they live as athletes. On it, as with Cruyff's Ajax and Holland teams, they can circulate in possession because they understand the bigger picture. All of which must be a delight for Del Bosque, who rested players for the final Euro qualifier against Scotland, tried Manchester City's David Silva in the 'false centre forward' role and won with style. At Wembley, he may experiment a little more but Spain have faith in their methods. Why wouldn't they?

For so long, Spain could rival England as a riddle of failure on the international circuit. Great players, passionate fans, a vibrant domestic game and successful clubs went hand-in-hand with a series of hard-luck stories and one fast-fading memory of silverware in the Sixties. When football's underachievers last met competitively, in Euro 96, even England managed to win a penalty shoot-out after hanging on for a draw.

Gerry Armstrong was present for Spain's biggest let-down, scoring as Northern Ireland stunned the hosts in the World Cup in 1982.

"The mentality has changed. They believe in each other and they believe in what they're doing. They pass and move and work the ball. I regularly watch games where Barcelona and Real Madrid have close to 70 per cent possession, home or away. They have put a lot of effort into their coaching over the last 15 years. They have three times as many coaches as we have in the UK and regulations about release allow the Spanish kids to get more coaching. They practice with Size 3 balls when they are six. By the age of 12, they are made tactically aware of their positions and responsibilities on the pitch," said Armstrong, who played in La Liga and has become a leading TV pundit on Spanish football.

"If you're the winger, you must learn to understand the movement of the centre forward, the central midfielders and the full back. Look at the players who have come from Spain to the Premier League. I've been raving about David Silva and Juan Mata for years and they are not first choice in the Spain team. Cesc Fabregas, one of the best players in the Premier League, is not first choice. Those on the periphery are keen to get in and be successful. There is pressure. Standards are high," Armstrong added.

The desire to play for Spain has not always seemed so great. The usual excuse trotted out for their failings was that of the divided nation. The Basques and the Catalans figured the national team was a project for the capital city and led by Real Madrid darlings such as Emilio Butragueno or Raul. That problem had eased, although the unity in Del Bosque's camp may be tested by Jose Mourinho stirring animosity at Real Madrid. A repeat of the bad blood spilled during last season's Champions League semi-final between La Liga's biggest clubs could be a disaster for the national team.

"If Spain don't win Euro 2012, this will be the reason. A wedge has been driven in there and a lot of the good work done has been undone," Armstrong declared.

It provides a sliver of hope for those plotting to dethrone the Spanish in Poland and Ukraine, but it would be tragic for international football to lose its saviours.

Exclusively by Matt Barlow and Pete Jenson

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