For the Spanish, that famous image of Iker Casillas hoisting the Henri Delaunay Trophy above his teammates in Vienna in 2008 brought a cathartic end to the 44-year torment suffered since their last victory in the 1964 European Nations’ Cup Final. Spain’s 1-0 defeat of Germany at Euro 2008 brought much-needed validation to a country that stood alone for so long as a pillar of beautiful football with nothing to show for it. However, less than two years beforehand, this success could not have been more distant as minnows Northern Ireland would embarrass the European champions-to-be.
Spain, fresh off of a routine Round of 16 World Cup exit, travelled to Belfast in early September 2006. Northern Ireland’s only win against Spain had come at the 1982 World Cup when Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal of the game. This time around, at least on paper, there was a much larger disparity between both teams.
The two sides had begun qualifying for Euro 2008 with conflicting results; Spain dispatched of Liechtenstein 4-0 whilst Northern Ireland fell to an embarrassing 3-0 loss at home to Iceland, in which they were booed off at half-time. Only one outcome was surely inevitable, especially when an unmarked Xavi volleyed Spain ahead after just 14 minutes to score his country’s 1000th goal.
Nevertheless, Spain would demonstrate their own inability to defend as Xabi Alonso’s startled backwards header was instinctively guided in by a lingering David Healy. Northern Ireland had scored their first-ever goal at home against Spain whilst also locating a long-ball chink in the Spanish armour; a weakness they would prey on for the remainder of the cold Belfast evening.
The Spanish recaptured the lead early in the second half by way of some pinball defending from Northern Ireland in which the ball was eventually fed through to David Villa, who stroked it across Maik Taylor’s goal and into the far corner; a level of marksmanship synonymous with a player off the back of his first season with Valencia in which he scored the club’s most goals in a single campaign for 60 years.
However, Leeds United’s David Healy was again on hand to punish Spain. Less than ten minutes later, the home team were level after a well-worked set piece saw Healy peel away from his marker and thump a low, training ground-forged cross into the net. The seventh-ranked side in the world was being dismantled by a strike partnership playing domestic football in England’s second tier.
In the 80th minute, another long-ball was misjudged by Michel Salgado to the delight of an on-running Healy who, cementing his national immortality, left his greatest trick to the end, calmly lobbing the ball over a helpless Casillas from 30 yards out. Spain’s superstars, hoping the Windsor pitch would engulf them, were instead subjected to a ferocious rendition of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ by way of the home crowd. Healy had scored Northern Ireland’s first hat-trick at home since the great George Best 35 years previous.
The victory came on the eve of the first anniversary of Northern Ireland beating England 1-0 in arguably their greatest result of the century; the scoreline proudly sprayed on many a gable wall that circled Windsor Park for years after. The Spain result was on par, if not very close.
For La Roja, the age-old issue was evident; they couldn’t cope when the match got ugly. Northern Ireland had played to their strengths, virtually unopposed.
Spain’s head coach Luis Aragonés was on bought time, saying after the game: “the federation will question my decision after this”. Remarkably, he would survive the onslaught of fury back home and remain entrusted as the man to reverse the stagnation. After all, Aragonés was a man that defined persistence. His coaching career before being appointed the national team head coach had spanned 757 games that included a remarkable five stints at Atlético Madrid.
Aragonés was quick to initiate some minor personnel tweaks, albeit with major consequences. There was little change under the umbrella of footballing philosophy for Spain, more so when and where it was utilised. The tiki-taka football had swept in alongside Aragonés in 2004, although remnants of it could be traced back further to Johan Cruyff’s Total Football of the late 1980s at Camp Nou. Instead, there was a marked change of mentality as well as a passing of the old guard.
The Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly over national team selection was discarded, opening more avenues both outside and inside Spain. The likes of Villarreal, Getafe and Espanyol began to make more regular contributions to the national side. Cesc Fàbregas was met with open arms from Arsenal; a disciple of Arsene Wenger’s own possession-based philosophy in London.
Fernando Torres would be phased into the national side at the expense of the legendary Raúl. In fact, Raúl would not pull the red of Spain on again after that night in Belfast. Aragonés had come to a head with the fractious icon who had become a problem within the camp. A watershed moment for Aragonés and the national side – get it wrong and there was no coming back.
Despite losing in Sweden the following month, the Spanish started to find their rhythm, winning eight of their remaining nine qualifiers to win the group by two points, pipping Sweden to the top spot in the final game. They had won what became to be the group of death, with the top four sides all finishing on 20 or more points, including fifth seed Northern Ireland who claimed more points than most envisioned.
A certain level of pragmatism was camouflaged behind the vigorously strict tiki-taka methodology. In fact, Spain’s first aesthetically pleasing goal didn’t arrive until the Semi-final against Russia when Xavi completed a 14-pass sequence that spanned the length of the Vienna pitch. Aragonés understood that there was a certain need for some give and take. Fernando Torres, who had embraced the physicality, speed and flair of the Premier League with Liverpool was deployed to perform to those exact strengths.
Remarkably, Spain committed the most fouls at Euro 2008; insightful of a determined and driven side, perhaps buoyed by a siege mentality with the Spanish media and sick of collapsing some distance from the final hurdle every time an international tournament rolled around.
The fact that it was Germany in the final, the masters of efficiency under Joachim Löw, was ironic in itself. Fernando Torres’ first-half strike won Spain their second European Championship, simultaneously declaring themselves the new benchmark of pragmatic football, in all of its tiki-taka beauty. Former Spain defender Albert Ferrer, who was part of the 1994 World Cup squad, said, “From that day onwards everything changed in Spanish football”.
Aragonés’ early years in charge had showcased the cute-angled, possessive football, minus the necessary bite. Perhaps the defeat to Northern Ireland was some sort of awakening, perchance influenced from above board, of the ugly realities and demands of modern football. Or perhaps it was simply a case of the right players at the right time. Whatever it was, it worked.
Luis García, who came on for Fernando Torres during the defeat in Belfast later said: “It was a wake-up call for us and the team reacted very well in the games that followed and we managed to go on and win the European Championships and obviously did very well after that too.”
National team success in the late 2000s ran parallel with the dominance of Barcelona, establishing clear form lines between domestic and international success. The Catalan giants won La Liga three times in a row between 2009 and 2011 as well as winning the Champions League twice within the same time frame. Both sides had arguably the best two midfielders of their generation in Xavi andAndrés Iniesta; two players who embodied the tiki-taka blueprint as well as the Spanish model player – small in stature, gargantuan in technique.
Aragonés would make way for Vicente del Bosque ahead of the 2010 World Cup as Spain won every match in qualifying on their way to South Africa. They would top Group H on goal difference before winning their next four knockout games by a 1-0 scoreline against Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and finally in the final against Holland in Johannesburg. This run of games reaffirmed the footballing world of a new Spain, one that matched resiliency with the technical ability they already had in spadesful.
Two years later, the Spanish did the unfathomable, winning their third major tournament on the trot. Again, qualifying top of their group before working their way to the final in Kiev without conceding a knockout goal. In the final, they trounced the Italians 4-0, solidifying their status as one of the greatest international sides ever.
The Spanish were made to wait, a wait so painful that they had adopted a match day phrase that translates from Spanish as, “we just come here to drink and don’t care about the score”. Now, the debt has been repaid by a national side that is their greatest ever generation, gifting them three major tournaments in four years; a world away from the pain of Windsor Park and that David Healy lob.