Is the current Spain the greatest national team of all time?
This, in the wake of the Spaniards’ devastating win in the Euro 2012 final, is being busily debated in media outlets all across Europe and beyond. The degree of adulation, and the making of historical comparisons, is just about out of control.
Given the elegance and poise with which Spain plays and keeps winning, that’s probably not surprising.
The difficulty with this stuff is that there are not too many people still around who actually saw all the great national teams of the past, like for instance the Uruguay of the 1920s or the Austria Wunderteam of the 1930s, so the attempts to compare are not credible. Those who have witnessed those teams and may read this, I salute you and bow to your judgement.
In any case it all depends on how you define greatness.
In my view a team that plays dazzling, irresistible, unstoppable football in one tournament or even a series of them does not necessarily qualify for true greatness. What must narrow down the list of the truly great teams in history is the supposition, that in order to be considered great the team has to have left a lasting imprint on the game. It has to have changed football in some way, tactically and philosophically, setting a benchmark that others will either follow or respond to in a way that alters the way the game is popularly played.
By this definition the jury on Spain’s claim to historical greatness is still out. Because we still don’t know to what extent Spain’s example will be broadly followed, or resisted and answered by way of tactical antidotes, we still have to wait a little longer.
For example, in the debate a popular nominee for a rival to Spain’s claimed historical greatness is the magnificent Brazil of the 1970 World Cup. This is utter nonsense, a narrow view and a confusion between what is wonderful as opposed to what is actually great. The Brazil of 1970, with Pelé, Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino etc, was a source of awesome wonder, a team of unrivalled attacking creativity.
But it left no lasting imprint on the game. The judgement, back in 1970, was simply that Brazil at the time was a collection of freakishly excellent individual players, that there was no point for others in trying to copy them and that it was best to move on in the hope that, in the view of its rivals, no such Brazilian generation would come anytime soon.
The Brazil of 1970 did not change the game, as some others of the past did and as Spain is now poised to change it. That is why the comparison is redundant.
The teams, by contrast, who did change the game profoundly, and to whom today’s Spain should be rightfully compared, are the Hungary of the 1950s and the Netherlands of the 1970s.
It was the Magyars of the ‘50s who turned established norms on their head by liberalising rigid positional play, introducing the switching of positions in mid-attack, the making of space by movement off the ball and putting to death the WM system which reigned in the world for the previous 30 years.
The WM became 4-2-4 which Brazil then adopted and with which it won the World Cups of 1958 and 1962. Soon the whole world was playing 4-2-4.
Inspired by this, the Dutch later took the concept to a higher level, introducing what the world called ‘total football’ in the 1970s, whereby excellence required total player versatility and almost utter disdain for pre-set positions.
It was this which the Barcelona under Johan Cruyff perfected even further and whose fruits we are now seeing in today’s Barca and today’s Spain.
Such innovations are almost invariably first triggered by club teams. Hungary’s ways were underpinned by Honvéd and MTK (the two club teams on which the Hungarian selection was almost entirely based), Netherlands's by Ajax and the current Spain by the technical culture of Barcelona.
Of course the big difference between this Spain and those other two great and highly influential teams is that while 1950s Hungary and 1970s Netherlands failed to win either the World Cup or the European Championship, Spain has won both in a mesmerising four-year span.
But winning trophies in themselves is not a prerequisite for greatness. Said Arrigo Sacchi, the Italian master coach, of the so-called Magical Magyars: ‘There are teams that have no need of winning important trophies to make history, the great Hungary was one of them.’
My colleague Craig Foster has already pointed out the beauty and wisdom of playing the way Spain does, including why it is not boring but the opposite, so I won’t bother repeating his analysis here.
I will only add that in trying to sum up Spain it is folly to read too much into the way it lines up at the start of a game. Kilometres of newspaper copy had been written, for instance, about Spain's use of a ‘false nine’ and ‘no strikers’ during Euro 2012. What’s a ‘false nine’? Was Nándor Hidegkúti, Hungary’s deep lying centre forward in the 1950s, also a ‘false nine’? He scored 39 goals in 69 internationals, including a hat-trick in a 6-3 rout of England at Wembley in 1953.
Is Cesc Fabregas unfitting of a centre forward because of his slight build? Matthias Sindelar, the world’s greatest centre forward in the 1930s, had a slight build, so slight they nicknamed him ‘the paper man’. He scored 27 goals for Austria.
What needs to be appreciated is that in the degree to which Spain has taken ‘total football’, pre-ordained positions have less relevance than ever before. Selecting three so-called midfielders in so-called striking roles means nothing more than Spain using six players in attacking roles, all of them players of consummate skill, with the capacity to create space for each other through their use of movement and a complete understanding of the system.
So how will this Spain impact on football’s tactical and technical evolution?
It is already immensely feared, which is another word for respected or admired. Some teams will surely try and copy it or at least aspire to emulate its futuristic way of playing. And that will surely be a good thing (even if no one in their right mind actually wants every team to play the same way).
But that will take time and first, teams will try to resist it and find ways to steal narrow victories against it. But Spain in full flight is not a football team but a galloping flood against which the erection of walls of sandbags is rarely enough.
There has to be other ways to beat it, ways yet to be found.
The world’s strongest teams, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, France, Uruguay, Netherlands etc, have two years to find a way if they want to be world champions in 2014.
It may just be a most intriguing World Cup in Brazil. But for the moment Spain reigns, and long may it last.
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