Spain Should Ignore The Bitter Critics - They're Still The Best

Familiarity breeds contempt and after four years of Spanish dominance the knives are out, which is nonsense from where I'm sitting...
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Familiarity breeds contempt and after four years of Spanish dominance the knives are out, which is nonsense from where I'm sitting...

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With success comes expectation. Look at England, who’ve been saddled with it since 1966, the best and the worst thing ever to happen to English football. And with sustained excellence, that vital ingredient to success, can sometimes come jealousy, resentment and a desire among some of us, tired by the brilliance of the greats, to see them fall flat on their faces.

The Spain we have seen at EURO 2012 are a case in point. They’re still winning games, just as they have been doing for the last four years. The difference now is that they’re finding the lofty expectations and demands of the media, the self-appointed arbiters of style, hard to match.

Accused by a growing band of detractors of using the technical gifts at their disposal to grind out victories rather than earn them with a flourish – a charge first levelled against them when they won their maiden world title two years ago – they face the almost impossible task of retaining both their European crown and the goodwill they have built up in pursuing their commitment to possession football.

Just a goal away from elimination for much of the night, Spain stayed true to their possession-based beliefs, patiently waiting for Bilic to show his hand with some late attacking substitutions and then plunging in the knife.

The criticism cranked up a notch after Monday evening’s game against Croatia, a match Spain did not need to win to progress to the last eight, yet one that still saw them have 14 goal attempts to their needier opponents’ five. In the final act the Spanish exploited space to walk the ball into the net, irking the non-believers even more, with five blue-shirted midfielders then flooding into the Croatian box in the final minute in search of a second. Boring Spain, eh?

True, the excellent Croats created the game’s best chance, superbly kept out by Casillas, still criminally underrated in some quarters. True, Bilic’s men had two compelling penalty claims turned down, one more than Spain. And true, the elusive Modric was the game’s most dangerous player, the leader of a side that merits a place in the last eight but is instead going home.

Even Del Bosque’s first substitution, Navas for Torres, wide man for centre-forward, turned out to be a masterstroke, the Sevilla man attracting possession like a magnet.

The fact remains, though, that the Croatians were killed off by a ruthless side that despite performing below their best and giving their fans more fretful moments than they would have liked, still produced the kind of display than no other side in the world would have managed in such a delicate situation. Just a goal away from elimination for much of the night, Spain stayed true to their possession-based beliefs, patiently waiting for Bilic to show his hand with some late attacking substitutions and then plunging in the knife.

It might not have been the smooth performance their increasingly noisy critics now demand of them at every turn, but given the perilous position they found themselves in against crafty opponents, it did the job. Even Del Bosque’s first substitution, Navas for Torres, wide man for centre-forward, turned out to be a masterstroke, the Sevilla man attracting possession like a magnet, helping to draw the sting from the Croatians, whose expected late assault never materialised.

Spain are all washed up they say. They’ve false-nined themselves into self-parody, become nothing more than a narcissistic and ultimately directionless automaton that has programmed itself to play keep-ball and do nothing more, unless it involves walking the ball in.

To some, no doubt the same people who hailed plucky little Chelsea’s backs-to-the-wall slog to Champions League glory, Monday’s performance was further evidence of just how tedious Spain are to watch. God, how we hate them – all that passing, shielding, recycling, switching, twiddling, twirling and feinting, that and their bloody-minded will to win.

Online naysayers and media prophets are predicting the end of it all. Spain are all washed up they say. They’ve false-nined themselves into self-parody, become nothing more than a narcissistic and ultimately directionless automaton that has programmed itself to play keep-ball and do nothing more, unless it involves walking the ball in. Having “cruised” to victory at EURO 2008 and South Africa 2010, Spain will surely pay for their mechanical self-indulgence and have their reign ended here. That may be so. The only thing is, we’ve heard it all before.

The Spanish stuck to their principles and won, late on, when other flakier Spain sides before them would have folded under the pressure.

After surviving a penalty shootout against Italy in the quarter-finals four years ago, Spain – so the cogniscenti assured us – would be ousted in the semis by Russia, thrilling winners over the Dutch. Luis Aragones’ side won 3-0.

On seeing them scrape past Paraguay at the same stage at the last World Cup, the footballing intelligentsia smugly predicted that Germany would give them the same lesson they had earlier handed out to Australia, Argentina and England. The Germans barely created a chance as Spain, inspired by Del Bosque’s decision to line up with Pedro in order to keep Philipp Lahm occupied, won 1-0, more comfortably than the scoreline suggests.

A nation accustomed to near misses, inexplicable failures and wafer-thin excuses, had suddenly learned how to lift trophies.

Holland would beat them in the final, then. Though only the width of a Casillas shinpad from losing and offered no protection from Dutch thuggery by Howard Webb, the Spanish stuck to their principles and won, late on, when other flakier Spain sides before them would have folded under the pressure.

A nation accustomed to near misses, inexplicable failures and wafer-thin excuses, had suddenly learned how to lift trophies. Yet in going from dark horses to seasoned winners, the Spanish, once most people’s favourite second team, have somehow lost a lot of well-wishers, the desire to see them collapse and return to being likeable also-rans growing by the day.

As Monday night revealed, though, perhaps more clearly than ever, Del Bosque and his gifted yet cussed side showed they don’t care what anyone thinks about them, not even their own fans or media. The day they do, is the day it really will all come to an end. And when that happens you might just miss them, one way or another. Then again though, there will always be a Greece or Chelsea around to fill the void.

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