KIEV, Ukraine – Certainly the best in the world and maybe the best ever. Definitely not boring.
Spain opened a fresh debate on its place in world soccer history after sweeping to a majestic 4-0 victory over Italy in the European Championship final on Sunday.
After winning Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Spain completed an unprecedented hat trick with its third consecutive major tournament title.
“To win three titles is almost impossible. Congratulations to the players,” said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who followed Luis Aragones as coach after Euro 2008.
And this was the same team that critics had called boring at Euro 2012?
Spain emphatically shut down that discussion, providing the perfect response with the most one-sided final in European Championship history.
No team has ever won a World Cup final by four clear goals, either. Even Pele’s Brazil only managed a three-goal margin a couple of times.
“It was more difficult when people didn’t believe in us,” Spain playmaker Xavi Hernandez said. “The bar was very high, but they are nice challenges.”
Goals from David Silva and Jordi Alba in the first half gave Spain a convincing lead at the Olympic Stadium. Fernando Torres and fellow substitute Juan Mata scored in the last six minutes to turn victory into a rout.
When the final whistle was blown, Spain’s players rushed to each other and huddled in a circle, jumping and spinning in celebration.
There were more hugs later in the dressing room, this time with Crown Prince Felipe of Spain. A regal presence was appropriate for a Spanish team whose four-year reign over world soccer shows little sign of ending.
Critics of Spain’s style said the world and European champions had become tedious, keeping possession with endless back-and-forth passes – termed “tiki taka” back home – to stifle games, not to win them.
But Spain answered by playing its best and slickest soccer at Euro 2012 when the most was at stake.
Along with some sublime play, it also delivered the most comprehensive victory in a European Championship final, topping West Germany’s 3-0 win over the Soviet Union in 1972.
“We won being true to our playing style, and by moving the ball the we way we moved it we knew how to take charge of the match,” Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. “What we do is difficult, but we make it look easy.”
Pity poor Italy, which leaves Euro 2012 showered with popular acclaim as the most watchable team in years from a country renowned for defensive tactics.
Playing Spain with 11 players is tough enough. Trying it with 10 for much of the second half is almost impossible.
With all three substitutes used, Thiago Motta was injured and unable to continue after the 64th minute, and an exhausted Italian side limped through to the end.
“This was a great European Championship for us,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “Really the only regret is that we didn’t have a few extra days to recuperate.
“When we see the lights of the Kiev stadium from the airplane it will be painful, but tomorrow we’ll have a new outlook. We have shown that you can lose with dignity.”
Spain allowed Italy the majority of first-half possessions, yet its trademark quick passing game was lethal when required, as was the finishing in front of the goal. The second half was almost entirely one-way traffic.
Mario Balotelli, Italy’s most talented striker, had little impact. His best chance came in the 27th minute, but Casillas pushed Federico Balzaretti’s cross away just as the 21-year-old was lining up a header from close range.
In the 39th minute, Balotelli finished off an exchange with Riccardo Montolivo by blasting a 30-yard effort far above the target.
“Tonight, there was no contest, they were too superior – so the bitterness at losing this final is only relative,” Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said.