Gone are the days when Spain were the undisputed kings of international football tournaments. Ever since the Dutch demolished Spain in Brazil, with Arjen Robben and co. putting five past Iker Casillas, the Spanish haven’t quite been the same. The talent is still there, but perhaps not in the same quantities and to the same degree that it was at both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
This year’s Euros, then, were the first chance for this Spain team to show that the last world cup did not mean they were down and out. Yes, it was the end of an era, with the retirement of stalwarts like Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández, but the skill and potential is still there. While the core of that team was largely comprised of Blaugranas, this team has four sure-fire Barça starters: Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. Doesn’t seem substantial or game-changing, does it? Yesterday this crop of players showed, in fact, that Spain’s Euro hopes rest squarely on their shoulders.
First off is a man who arguably divided opinion in Spain like no one else. Even dividing opinion may be a bit of exaggeration, as the Madrid-based propaganda machine has ensured that Piqué is loathed outside of Catalunya. It is true that the Catalan does himself no favors when he openly taunts his counterparts at Real Madrid, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Arbeloa being his favorite victims, but the insults and abuse hurled at him by Spanish fans is still extremely uncalled for. This is a man who has been the cornerstone of the Spanish defense for at least six years now. He has been there though the World Cup highs and lows, and even if he hasn’t been at his best sometimes, in the same vein as most of his teammates, he gives his all for his country and does not deserve to be whistled any more than Sergio Ramos or Iker Casillas do.
He is whistled though, and it would have likely continued, and possibly still will, if the game yesterday had finished in a draw, or if God forbid the Czechs had somehow won. It was fitting that Piqué scored the sole goal, the goal that gave La Roja three points and ensured that the Spanish started off on the right foot in this tournament.The joy, and perhaps more importantly the relief, that goal brought to his teammates and his countrymen was evident to see. His celebration spoke louder than any post-match interview ever could, with a solemn expression on his face as his teammates celebrated on and around him, almost Superman-esque in the moment.
The goal to hopefully kick-start a successful Euro defense for Spain, scored by the most-hated player on the team. Poetic justice is the term, I believe?
What then of the man who laid on the assist for Piqué? The man who won the World Cup for La Roja and was the man of the tournament at the Euros too? The man who has more man-of-the-match awards in major tournaments and in finals than any player currently plying his trade? Don Andrés was the undisputed man-of-the-match, almost six years on from when he scored the winning goal in Johannesburg, and it is a testament to his ability and resourcefulness that he is still Spain’s go-to man when the going gets tough. He didn’t put a foot wrong yesterday and becomes the only Spanish player to have assisted goals in three different European tournaments. Older but just as good, if not better, seems to be Don Andrés’s motto, and we’re lucky to be have been able to witness his brilliance for such an extended period of time.
As a whole, Spain created chances and tested Petr Čech on multiple occasions, but one feels that they would find it difficult to open up a better defense and probably keep out a better attack, which spells danger once the knock-out stages hit. The Barça contingent are going to be key, with Mr. Shakira and El Illusionista having already dug Spain out of a hole. Piqué can’t score all the goals, and since Lionel Messi is busy scoring hat-tricks for Argentina someone else will have to step up if Spain are to go far in this tournament. If all else fails, there’s always King Geri and Don Andrés, ready to bail Spain out.