On 6 September 2006, in entrance of 14,500 followers at Windsor Park, Spain’s serial underachievers as soon as once more got here up brief, losing 3-2 to Northern Ireland in a Euro 2008 qualifier.
No-one again house was significantly stunned. This was a facet who had flattered to deceive for years. Since successful their solely title – the 1964 European Championship – they’d simply as soon as progressed past the quarter-finals of a serious match.
Luis Aragones, the La Liga veteran appointed nationwide workforce supervisor in 2004, had begun his reign with a promising 25-game unbeaten run. However as soon as once more the optimism disappeared, this time following a last-16 defeat on the 2006 World Cup by an ageing France facet many felt had been solely beatable.
Three months on, Aragones knew one thing needed to be completed. That evening in Northern Eire satisfied him issues needed to change.
It was the beginning of one thing exceptional. Inside six years, Spain could be heralded as essentially the most profitable worldwide workforce of all time. That is the way it occurred.
There had all the time been rumours about friction and battle between gamers from totally different golf equipment and areas in Spain. Once they misplaced the European Championship closing to France in 1984 following a horrible goalkeeping mistake from the usually dependable Luis Arconada, some even made the absurd suggestion that he had made the error on objective as a result of he was Basque and didn’t need Spain to win.
“There have been numerous gamers from Actual Madrid and others from Barcelona – and once we received collectively, you famous a sure distance from gamers of various groups,” says former Spain striker Fernando Morientes of the facet he performed in in the course of the early Aragones period. “There wasn’t the identical togetherness within the day-to-day residing that we see now.”
Politics wasn’t the principle barrier to success this time, although. Initially, it was the techniques.
Towards Northern Eire in Spain’s second aggressive match after the 2006 World Cup, Aragones realised that the model favoured by his predecessors – a direct, and even long-ball method – was not working.
However in an effort to obtain the change he wished, harsh decisions needed to be made. Selections that introduced Aragones perilously near shedding his job.
Actual Madrid celebrity Raul was way more than simply one other participant. He was an icon. To many Spaniards, he was the essence of what they thought their nation’s soccer ought to be.
After the defeat in Belfast, Aragones noticed that Raul not fitted into Spain’s general plan. He dropped the striker. Madrid’s media went into meltdown. Axing a legend was dangerous sufficient, however this was compounded – of their opinion – by the disrespect of not having contacted the participant personally to tell him.
Raul was 35. The Northern Eire recreation was his 102nd for Spain. It will be his final. Aragones was unapologetic.
“I did not name Raul to let him know he wasn’t chosen,” he stated. “He’s not an distinctive case. The easy truth is that the gamers I’ve referred to as up are most suited to our wants.”
Whereas the supervisor set about making an attempt to reinvent Spain’s model of play, Madrid’s media sharpened their knives.
Defeat by Sweden and a attract Iceland meant the workforce had been at risk of lacking out on Euro 2008 altogether once they travelled to Denmark on 13 October 2007. A loss in Aarhus would virtually actually have sealed Aragones’ destiny.
As a substitute, it went down because the evening Spanish soccer was reborn.
Former Barcelona striker David Villa, remembering the sport, says: “We had every thing to play for. If we would misplaced, we’d have been searching for a spot within the play-offs at greatest. Perhaps we would not even have managed that.”
Aragones’ Eureka second got here within the thirty ninth minute, when a 30-pass transfer culminated in then full-back Sergio Ramos chipping the ball over the Denmark goalkeeper for Spain’s second aim. They went on to win 3-1 and certified for the Euros as group winners.
Extra importantly it signalled the arrival of the brand new Spain, outlined by passes and collective work.
Fernando Hierro, who was Spain’s sporting director on the time, recollects: “There was numerous stress earlier than the sport due to the significance of that fixture.
“Denmark had been very sturdy, however we had been calm and Luis was accountable for relaying that calm to everybody, saying: ‘Don’t be concerned, chill out, tomorrow we’ll win 3-1.’
“Extremely, he even received the scoreline proper.”
It was an enormous turning level that signalled the arrival of a brand new Spain, a workforce outlined by their domination of possession and collective work.
Midfielder Marcos Senna sums up the change in model succinctly: “For the primary time Aragones opted to go for the small ball gamers within the center.”
The supervisor had examined the presents he had at his disposal. Loads of superb midfielders. Passers of the ball. He determined to make use of them – however he added a little bit of spice as effectively. On quite a few events, he would say to Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Santi Cazorla: “How do you win video games? Scoring, no? Why the hell do not you rating extra?”
The seed was planted for a method that was stunning to observe, but in addition environment friendly.
‘Breaking our curse’ – Euro 2008
Having lastly secured their place on the Euro 2008 finals in Austria and Switzerland, Spain had an opportunity to finish a 44-year trophy drought.
“I keep in mind the day we arrived in Austria,” says left-back Joan Capdevila.
“We received there at noon and the traditional factor would have been to get straight into coaching. However Luis instructed us we had free time till the following day. Think about! We had been so stunned: we would solely simply received there and he was giving us day without work.
“I believe we began to win at that second as a result of he knew particulars like these would carry us collectively.”
After cruising via their group, Spain confronted a quarter-final towards bogey facet Italy, who they’d by no means crushed in a serious competitors.
“It added one other dimension to it,” says Capdevila. “They seem to be a prestigious workforce and we had the hoodoo of all the time getting crushed by the larger nations. We might play effectively however we’d lose.”
Within the match, Spain dominated however couldn’t rating. It was 0-0 as the top of additional time approached. A penalty shootout loomed.
Aragones turned to his assistant Jose Ufarte and requested him to arrange for the shootout.
Jesus Paredes, Spain’s health coach on the time, takes up the story: “He [Ufarte] began to arrange an inventory of penalty takers and when he had some doubts about one or two he consulted with Aragones.
“The supervisor stated ‘present me’. He checked out Ufarte’s record, scrubbed it out after which put Cesc Fabregas because the final taker.”
Capdevila remembers Fabregas’ spot-kick completely.
“I used to be on the midway line and I could not see the aim,” he says. “Gianluigi Buffon was so large, he seemed like a large.
“I do not know the way Cesc may take that penalty. If it had been me, it might have given me a giant headache – and I used to be one of many senior gamers.”
Rating, and Spain had been via.
Fabregas stepped up, and calmly slotted the ball to Buffon’s left. Spain had lastly crushed Italy.
Again within the dressing room, he was approached by Paredes, who stated: “Nice penalty Cesc – you seemed so assured.
“Jesus,” Fabregas replied, “that was the primary penalty I’ve taken since I used to be 14.”
Alfredo Relano, former editor-in-chief of AS, one in all Spain’s most influential sports activities newspapers, says: “Every little thing modified for me at that second.
“After that, I did not have any doubts within the nationwide workforce for the remainder of the Euros and even past.
“It was like we had damaged the curse and we had been enjoying very well. It occurred throughout Spain. We shook off our pessimism.”
Hierro provides: “That is when Spain turned a dominant pressure. That was the second we modified historical past.”
For generations of Spaniards, together with Jose Luis Zapatero, then the nation’s prime minister, it was a defining second of their lives.
“From folks of my age, Cesc could have tributes and recognition eternally as a result of I’m of the technology that thought we’d by no means see Spain go previous the quarter-finals,” he says.
Within the semi-finals, a liberated Spanish facet performed with freedom towards Russia to placed on their greatest efficiency of the match, successful 3-0 to cruise into their first closing for twenty-four years.
“A weight had been lifted,” Capdevila says. “Within the semi-finals, you noticed the very best of our workforce. We had a terrifying confidence in ourselves in that match and we knew we had been going to make the ultimate, it doesn’t matter what occurred.”
It will be Germany subsequent.
The day earlier than the match, Aragones gave a workforce discuss that’s nonetheless remembered by the gamers current.
“He received us collectively in the course of the pitch at coaching,” recollects Capdevila. “He stated: ‘Wallace is not going to play.’ We had been all pondering, Wallace? Who’s Wallace?
“I believe it was Xavi who stated: ‘Boss, who’s Wallace? Do you imply Ballack?’
“‘No matter, I name him Wallace,’ Aragones replied. That broke the stress of the ultimate as a result of all of us fell about laughing.”
On 29 June 2008 in Vienna, Aragones’ affect would as soon as extra show essential.
Within the dressing room earlier than the ultimate, he instructed striker Fernando Torres: “Niño, get in between the 2 centre-backs so they’re compelled to drop off. Wait to 1 facet of them and run in behind when we’ve the ball.”
Wanting again now, it’s a good description of how Torres would breach the German defence, working on to a Xavi via ball to attain the successful aim.
Villa says: “In any case these darkish days, when for one motive or one other, your nation is knocked out of the World Cup or a European Championship, that day the nation set free a sigh of reduction and stated: Finally.”
For Spain, it was simply the beginning. However they might proceed with out Aragones.
Aragones had introduced in September 2007 that win or lose, he could be calling it a day after the summer season of 2008.
The Spanish Soccer Federation had his alternative lined up. A deal was in place with former Actual Madrid boss Vicente del Bosque.
However when the Spanish workforce’s aircraft was caught in air visitors above Innsbruck for about an hour on the best way house from their Euros triumph, the entire workforce broke into continuous chants of “Luis – ¡Quedate!” (‘Luis – Keep!’)
Clearly moved by the present of affection, Aragones would have appreciated to vary his thoughts at that time and the gamers had been very a lot in favour of him remaining within the publish. It was left to Spain’s director of soccer on the time, Hierro, to make the choice. He caught with the unique plan to herald Del Bosque.
“I’ve little question in my thoughts that the way by which I made my choice was right,” Hierro says now. “My conscience is obvious on that.”
On 1 February 2014, Aragones – a controversial figure however the man who lastly introduced success to his football-crazy nation – died on the age of 75.
Capdevila says: “We’re all very grateful for what he did, firstly to carry collectively an awesome workforce filled with expertise and an awesome environment and secondly to offer all his soccer knowledge. He was a sage. All of us have nice reminiscences of him as a result of he left his mark on all of us.”
Conquering the world
From the beginning, Del Bosque stated he had the right blueprint for fulfillment. Even so, he modified round a 3rd of the squad for the 2010 World Cup and an extra third earlier than the 2012 European Championship.
The artwork was to introduce new faces whereas creating the sensation that nothing had modified in any respect.
Spain went to the World Cup in South Africa following an unbeaten qualifying marketing campaign with their inventory excessive. They promptly misplaced their opening group recreation 1-0 to Switzerland.
“It was a giant setback and virtually unthinkable as we weren’t ready for it,” says Del Bosque. “We weren’t trying to apportion blame. If something we had been all guilty collectively.”
The emphasis was on not letting any self-doubts creep in, however stress earlier than the following match towards Honduras was palpable. Villa would later say it was “the toughest second of the entire World Cup”.
Qualification was nonetheless potential with two victories within the subsequent two video games. Defeat would virtually actually have seen Spain eradicated.
Honduras had been crushed 2-0, however a draw towards Chile within the closing group match may nonetheless have seen them eradicated.
The silence earlier than the match, each on the coach and within the dressing room, was deafening.
Del Bosque explains the environment: “I had a supervisor a few years in the past who would demand absolute silence within the dressing room an hour earlier than a recreation, with no one else within the room to ensure most focus. However it is a group that performs loud energetic music to assist get them into the temper.
“On the times of the video games towards Honduras and Chile, you might hear a fly go by.”
After Spain beat Chile 2-1, Del Bosque instructed his gamers they’d 4 finals forward of them – the final 16, the quarters, semis after which the precise closing.
Portugal had been crushed first, then got here Paraguay in one other of these essential quarter-finals. Spain had by no means progressed past that stage in a World Cup. And as soon as once more the wheels very almost fell off.
“Everybody thought Paraguay had been a workforce we’d defeat simply however nothing may have been farther from the reality,” says Capdevila.
The Paraguayans performed as if their lives relied on it. Villa commented afterwards that “it appeared like there have been 20 of them on the pitch”. For Spain, it was a nerve-racking match; Iker Casillas saved a penalty after which Xavi missed a twice-taken spot kick.
“It was an insane recreation, a recreation once you knew that whoever scored first was going to win,” Villa says.
Del Bosque remembers it effectively: “At instances my legs had been actually shaking, which is one thing that you simply simply cannot management.”
Villa received the decisive strike, a weird aim that finally went in after hitting each posts, virtually as if the ball was making an attempt its greatest to remain out. Villa stated later it was “successfully a golden aim, doubtless my most vital one”.
Germany got here subsequent and, simply as in 2008, Spain reserved their greatest efficiency of the match for the semi-finals, advancing because of a successful aim made in Barcelona.
With the groups stage at half-time, central defender Carles Puyol talked about to Xavi on the best way to the altering rooms that, in the event that they had been to get a nook within the second half, he ought to float it in across the penalty spot as he knew he may soar and rating precisely as he had completed beforehand for his membership in a match towards Actual Madrid.
Puyol headed within the winner within the second half to seal Spain’s third consecutive 1-0 victory within the knockout phases. It arrange a gathering with the Netherlands within the closing in Johannesburg.
Former prime minister Zapatero recollects his emotions earlier than the match. “I used to be with my spouse and daughter and we had been a bundle of nerves,” he says. “We have now by no means seen one another so tense. I’ve by no means seen my spouse so immersed in a recreation a soccer a lot in my life.”
Del Bosque says: “We had been defending our nation. However we had been additionally defending our model of soccer.”
Capdevila can not keep in mind participating in a extra bodily recreation. “Perhaps they thought we had been higher than them with the ball, and aggression was the one manner they might cease us,” he displays. “However I believe it was extreme. I used to be very stunned.”
With everybody satisfied the match would go to penalties – Arjen Robben had wasted a wonderful probability for the Dutch within the second half – Iniesta’s 116th-minute aim rewrote Spanish soccer historical past.
“The ball got here to my toes and I had two choices,” says Fabregas. “Shoot or go. I’ve all the time questioned what would have occurred if I had shot. However I noticed Iniesta in an awesome place and it was the very best second of our careers.”
“That 70 metres to the nook flag was the quickest I’ve ever run,” says Capdevila. “I’d even have overtaken Gareth Bale! However it was essentially the most highly effective, most stunning second of my life. It was distinctive and remains to be very emotional to recall.”
Villa says: “We thought that this match belonged to a Brazilian, an Italian or a German and we by no means imagined somebody sporting the pink shirt choosing up that trophy. It appeared like one thing so troublesome, just about not possible.”
Capdevila provides: “One of the emotional experiences I’ve had on a soccer pitch was after lifting the cup and doing a lap of honour. I used to be capable of see my poor long-suffering mother and father crying within the stadium. My mom had paid 1,200 euros to return to see this recreation.
“You keep in mind numerous issues, like once you had been little and so they used to take you to and from coaching day by day. You realise the sacrifice they made and to see it rewarded in a stadium full with 80,000 folks was virtually unthinkable. Watching my mother and father cry was very emotional.”
Three in a row – historical past is made
Sapin went to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine as favourites, however not everybody was a fan.
“Why do not they shoot extra usually?” German World Cup-winning captain and supervisor Franz Beckenbauer remarked when requested about Spain.
Regardless of such criticism, they had been more practical than ever. Within the phrases of Zapatero: “The ultimate of Euro 2012 was arguably the best second of the workforce constructed by Aragones and Del Bosque. The workforce was like a clockwork mechanism.”
No-one had ever gained a closing as convincingly as Spain did, outclassing Italy to win 4-0 and grow to be the primary worldwide workforce to win three consecutive main tournaments.
Del Bosque describes his facet’s efficiency within the closing as “the very best recreation we ever performed”.
Hierro provides: “They noticed themselves as winners within the Spain shirt and once they got here collectively as full internationals, they had been already used to successful.
“It was a stupendous and really troublesome factor that they achieved, to have such an awesome understanding collectively and that was because of Aragones’ gamble on so-called small gamers in Euro 2008.
“They had been all very comfy with one another and that turns into simpler when you’re successful, however the truth they had been so comfy with the philosophy and elegance of soccer made them very highly effective certainly.”
Capdevila sums up the sensation of the technology when he says: “What I’ve had the fortune to expertise are tales I’ll inform my kids and my grandchildren in years to return.
“I’m determined to inform them already. I’ve been so fortunate. I had the privilege of sharing a dressing room with a number of the greatest gamers on the planet.”
However having made historical past, the dream of a fourth title in a row would quickly die. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil signalled the top of the street for this all-conquering Spanish facet.
Was it complacency from the gamers? Misplaced loyalty proven to the outdated guard? Or just the top of an period for a workforce that had dominated world soccer over the earlier six years?
It was in all probability a little bit of every thing.
Del Bosque wished to present that technology a send-off on the most important stage.
However the starting of the top got here in the identical manner as had the street to all-conquering glory; with a aim of beautiful brilliance.
This time it was a diving header from Robin van Persie, an unimaginable end that drew the Netherlands stage after Xabi Alonso had put Spain forward of their opening recreation. Spain would go on to be humiliated 5-1.
The easy fact was that for the facet that will likely be eternally remembered as the easiest of its technology – one which reinvented the method to the best way soccer ought to be performed – the occasion was over. However what a celebration it had been.