First success unites and then it divides. Just ask Spain.
Their coronation as European champions four years ago came to a soundtrack of superlatives. After Greece had conquered the continent by defending diligently and scoring from set-pieces, Spain were a pleasure to purists.
Their passing game became football’s dominant ideology. Xavi was transformed into a byword for all that is good, a modest, unselfish prompter whose prowess was a triumph of the technical over the physical.
Four years and one World Cup win later, Spain are still celebrated. But they are also castigated. To their admirers, Spain are brilliant. To their critics, they are boring.
They only mustered three shots on target – all from Xabi Alonso, and one a penalty – in their quarter-final victory over France; just one, a rather tame effort from Xavi, in 90 minutes of regulation time in the semi-final stalemate with Portugal.
Passing was originally an attacking ethos. Now it seems a negative one. Where, four years ago, they averaged a shot every 33 passes, now it is one every 58. The accusation is that tiki-taka has become a defensive gambit. Perpetual possession simply stops the opposition having the ball.
“Sterile domination,” a phrase Arsene Wenger used about Barcelona, is rather more applicable to Spain. It can be overly simplistic to equate the number of strikers with the goal tally but the side of 2008, while passing purveyors, had two out-and-out forwards in David Villa and Fernando Torres.
The team of 2012 sometimes has none. This has been the tournament when ‘false nine’ has entered the wider footballing vocabulary, courtesy of a policy of six midfielders and no specialist attackers.
Even with Villa at his clinical best, Spain only scored eight goals in seven World Cup games. They have eight so far in Euro 2012, but ignore the four against the outclassed Irish and late strikes when Croatia and France were gambling on attack and their record is of two meaningful strikes in 387 minutes.
Spain believe they are suffering for their success. The more a team wins, the more time others devote to stopping them. “When opponents are shutting up shop, are only trying to stop you hurting them, football is not as attractive as when the game is open,” argued Andres Iniesta.
Yet these are the tests champions face. The most beloved international sides, the Brazil of 1970 or the France of 2000, cemented their greatness by scoring, rather than just passing.
By assembling a side of soul mates, Spain have taken a theory to its logical extreme.
Conventional thinking is that a side requires balance; not merely between attack and defence, but between players of different attributes. Spain seem intent on disproving it, with every slight technical talent to take the field together, with every striker or winger left on the bench.
But passages of play become elegant gridlock. They last conceded in the knockout stage of a major tournament during the 2006 World Cup. Between them, France and Portugal mustered a single shot on target. It is part compliment, part criticism but they remove the eventfulness from showpiece events.
They do so admirably – this is not the tedium of defensive or direct football – but they do so by reducing the potential for the dramatic that forms part of football’s appeal.
Their pursuit of a third title is a historic high. “We are still making history,” said captain Iker Casillas. “We hope people will remember us for the rest of their lives.”
But Spain’s legacy is at stake. Win and they could be deemed international football’s finest ever team.
Win without exciting and the applause will be interrupted by groans. If a generally entertaining tournament could benefit from an action-packed final, so could Spain. Because defending champions have also become divisive champions.