KIEV, Ukraine — Spain has taken its place among soccer’s great teams by becoming the first nation to successfully defend its European Championship after winning the World Cup. The task, now, is to be remembered as the greatest.
“The bar has been set very high,” midfielder Xavi Hernandez said after Sunday’s 4-0 rout of Italy, the largest margin in a European or World Cup final. “The expectations are high. Now everyone will expect us to always triumph, and it’s better that way. Before it was more difficult.”
The Spaniards improved with every game during a three-week tournament in which they were at times criticized for being boring for playing possession-based soccer and starting some matches with six midfielders instead of an accomplished forward.
Spain won the Euros four years ago under Luis Aragones for its first major title since the 1964 tournament, earning praise of its free-flowing style. Its quick-touch “tiki taka” flair continued when Vicente del Bosque took over.
Del Bosque became just the second coach after West Germany’s Helmut Schoen to win European and world titles. The former Real Madrid coach was criticized for playing without a traditional striker and relying on Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas up front.
Spain neutralized opponents through possession, with its heavy passing game foes. And the defense has been as reliable — Spain has outscored opponents 14-0 in 10 knockout-round games en route to the three titles.
“What we do is difficult, but we make it look easy. It wasn’t a walk in the park,” goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas said. “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.”
Since that European Championship triumph in Vienna four years ago, Spain became the first team to win 15 straight competitive fixtures and matched Brazil’s record 35-game unbeaten run from the 1990s. Spain finished qualifying for the last two major tournaments perfect and is unbeaten in 20 straight official games since losing its 2010 World Cup opener against Switzerland.
West Germany and France are the previous World Cup champions who failed to win that coveted third straight trophy.
Spain’s next task will certainly be its biggest test as it will have to win in 2014 in Brazil, a nation that has won five World Cups and produced arguably the greatest national team ever. And the 2014 tournament could feature Spain going against Argentina and Lionel Messi — teammate of many Spanish players on Barcelona.
“Our performance was complete,” Iniesta said. “I never could have imagined this.”