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The one that got away

In life, the search for beauty is constant. Yet sometimes, we don’t see it when it is right in front of us, and other times, we find it, and let it slip through our fingers.

The world’s most popular art is football, and its greatest practitioner is Lionel Messi. I am an atheist, but he is god.

There are teams that will forever rue the fact that Messi escaped from them. As a boy, Leo was already a terror in Argentine junior leagues, but neither his team, Newell’s or the club that wanted to recruit him, River, was willing to spend the small sum that would solve his hormone deficiency and allow him to pursue a professional career. Instead it was Barça that was willing to invest. Never have they spent their money more wisely, and as the blaugrana make an effort to become the world’s biggest club, they will always have the stinginess of others to thank.

What breaks my heart is that Messi will never play for Spain. He moved to Barcelona at age thirteen, and is a holder of Spanish nationality. Of course Spain invited him to join the national team, but Messi loved Argentina too much.

Messi has scored goals at a higher rate for Barcelona than he has for Argentina, and this has won him some criticism in the southern hemisphere. There are even people who say he is not really Argentinian.

These commentators are morons. The problem in the Argentina-Messi relationship is not the great man, it’s the Argentinian football authorities. Why was he on the bench in Germany 2006? Why did they let Riquelme call the shots in 2007 in Venezuela? Why is Martín Palermo allowed within five miles of him? They don’t know what they have, and if they would only trust him, he will bring Argentina a third world title this summer.

For the supporters of Spain, there are no such doubts. We love Messi. Perhaps one day Leo will realize that he will be treated better in the old country, perhaps a beautiful catalana will catch his eye, perhaps Pep Guardiola will coach the national team, and we will see this new god in the red shirt…

Daring to hope…

In the directory

More than 100 responses have been collected in daringtohope’s urtak. We are in the Urtak directory now.

I thank you all for your questions and opinions!

And by the way: Will Spain win the World Cup? 60% say yes.

Daring to hope.

The greatest game of the eighties

Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy - the giants of world football - have long histories of glorious moments in the game. On the club side, Spain can go toe to toe with anyone, but on the national level, this has obviously not been the case. A solitary continental championship in 1964 cannot possibly compare.

The Spanish campaigns of the eighties were before my time. But the game that has passed into legend, and become a part of my memory, is little-known in the wider world. It’s not the 5-1 win over Denmark in 1986. Nor does it come from the 1984 tournament, where Spain lost to France in the final. And sadly, it has nothing to do with the wasted opportunity of Spain’s World Cup in 1982.

In the days of tournaments with fewer participants - qualification was no easy matter. By the end of 1983, it looked like Spain would not qualify for Euro 84. Going into the last match against Malta, Spain could tie the leader, Holland, with a win, but would need to make up a goal difference of eleven to go through.

Needing to win by eleven, Spain started slowly, scoring the first only in minute fifteen. 1-0. Ten minutes later, disaster struck. Malta scored! A quarter of the game gone, and Spain was no closer to qualifying. The first half ended 3-1 to Spain.

After the break, Spain kept coming, and scored and scored again. By the sixty-third minute, the score was 8-1. Goal 11 was scored with ten minutes to go. I can only imagine the agony the fans in the Sánchez Pizjuán of Seville must have been living. When Juan Señor finally put Spain eleven goals up, and ahead of the Dutch, the country celebrated as if it had won the World Cup.

That the most famous match of the decade should take place against Malta says something about the national football culture. Then again, it was truly epic. The 2008 superteam has since taught us to recognize true champions, but anyone who wants to understand the Spanish psyche would be well served to remember a famous game, Spain 12 - Malta 1.


The goals


Scenes of celebration

Zubizarreta’s worst moment

Spain came into the 1998 World Cup in France with high hopes. Real Madrid had poached its seventh European title from Zidane’s Juventus. Raúl and Morientes were entering their primes. Hierro, Luis Enrique, and Sergi, stars of the 1994 and 1996 campaigns still possessed all their powers. Only Pep Guardiola was injured and left out of the team.

I personally couldn’t have been more excited. I was twelve, and the bitter exits I had seen against Italy and England left me imagining that somehow divine justice meant that Spain finally had to do something. I even had my first Spanish jersey - a blue shirt, usually worn by the youth teams, which I treasured and still own.

Spain’s group, featuring Nigeria, Paraguay, and Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria was considered the group of death. In spite of that, we all sat down to watch the first game, against Nigeria, with a spirit of optimism.

Spain attacked from the whistle, and on the receiving end of an uncharacteristic long ball, Raúl got a shot off in the first ten seconds. When Hierro knocked in a free kick in the twenty-first minute, things were looking good. Spain after all has always been an excellent front-runner, taking good advantage of the opponent being forced to attack.

The Nigerians were fighters and equalized right away. In the second half, Raúl scored off another long ball, and things finally began to look really promising. Unfortunately, once again, one man stood between Spain and victory: our goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta.

My father always tells the story of going with my brother to see his Osasuna play Barcelona in the Camp Nou. Osasuna, as might be expected, didn’t do too much of anything, but Barça couldn’t score. Out of nowhere, an Osasuna player shot, and caught Barça’s goalie snoozing - a classic cantada. The culprit? Zubizarreta of course. The final score? Osasuna 1 - Barcelona 0.

Zubizarreta played more games than anyone else for Spain, and for as long as I remember we lived in fear of the cantada. For while Zubizarreta was a strong positional goalkeeper, capable of excellent saves, he seemed remarkably distracted by the standards of the professional athlete. In the 73rd minute against Nigeria, disaster struck.



Zubizarreta, as anyone can see, was the key factor in the goal.

Demoralized, Spain allowed a third goal, and left the stadium without a point. This was the key moment in the disastrous summer of 1998, when Spain was eliminated in the first round.

Years later, on a magnificent spring day in my last semester of university, I waited for a class to begin. With me was the teaching fellow, a Nigerian gentleman. I asked him if he was a soccer fan. “Yes of course,” he replied.

“My team is Spain,” I told him.

“Ah,” he said, “that was the greatest day.”

He should thank Andoni Zubizarreta.

The Basque Ideal of Beauty

Ismael Urzáiz is not the best known of the Spanish footballers. He played most of his professional career for Athletic Bilbao, and was one of those great players who seem to make it tremendously easy for his teammates to bounce balls off him and into the goal. I myself will always have a certain fondness for Urzáiz because of the two goals he scored in an epic 9-0 thrashing of Austria in the Euro 2000 qualifiers.

But there is another reason that Urzáiz sticks in my brain. Inexplicably to me, my father always pointed him out as the best-looking player on the Spanish side. While Spain’s players have never approached the prettiness of Italy’s, even in those pre-Fernando Torres days, Urzáiz did not stand out for his good looks. Though it’s true that his teammates Hierro, Abelardo, and Sergi are fairly ugly gentlemen, so perhaps to be the best of that bunch is to be damned with faint praise.

Or it could be the Navarran chauvinism I learned at a young age. Given that so many things from that small province are the best in the world, it should be no surprise that the top spot in the beauty contest should go to Urzáiz, from Tudela.

Rational argument could never resolve family differences. Urzáiz remains a paragon of pulchritude to some, but certainly not all. I leave you with some images of the great man, twenty-five times an international for Spain. Decide for yourselves.

Who is the greatest?

It is never easy to decide who is the greatest player. Pele and Maradona did battle for the title of player of the century, but if my father has been the judge, the verdict would have been simple, “Cruyff. Cruyff is the best.”

Establishing who has been the brightest Spanish star is similarly difficult. No Spaniard has ever won the World Player of the year, and none has won the Ballon d’Or since 1961. The lack of all-time legends is a probable reason for Spain’s underperfomance at international tournaments. Then again, it could be a symptom.

Over the next weeks, I will try to determine who is my all-time Spanish footballer. But in the interests of justice, all-time will be defined as players that I have actually watched, so it’s really a question of who is the greatest player of the last two decades.

In this post, I will nominate the first of ten candidates - Raúl, Spain’s leading scorer and most capped outfield player. Winner of three Champions Leagues and six domestic titles, he was the heart and soul of the team from 1998 to 2004. With 66 goals in the Champions League, he is that competition’s leading scorer by some distance.

Definitely the most dangerous player of any national team he was on, the Raúl’s attribute that I most admire is his hunger for victory. It is a shame that his decline from top form at a relatively young age has meant that he has missed out on Spain’s most glorious achievements, but if he had not been kept out of the stolen 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against South Korea, perhaps everything might have been different.

No discussion of the greatest Spanish player would be complete without consideration of Raúl.

Here are two Raul goals, the first against South Africa in 2002, typical of his work-rate, persistence, and opportunism. The second against Slovenia in 2000, demonstrating his excess of skill.

He was blind but now can see

From my friend Anil,

"It’s testament to their lacklustre performances in the 90s that growing up I never thought of Spain as a football powerhouse. I always viewed them as just another decent European team. I remember commenting to my mother in the world cup of 94 that Spain had had a good year, with Bruguera winning the French Open, and the football team making the quarterfinals! Indeed I was quite surprised to hear your constant indignation that they weren’t going far in the major tournaments. Oh, how times have changed, eh."

Let’s hope that this summer is not another year of indignation.

A bad beginning

Euro 2000 began with high hopes. Under sweaty new coach José Antonio Camacho, Spain qualified for the tournament with ludicrous ease. During the campaign, they had 42 goals for and only 5 against, which included a memorable 9-0 destruction of Austria.

That year, Spanish clubs had also run riot in Europe. Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia all reached the semi-finals of a Champions League which ended with Real Madrid’s eighth title.

Joining the 90s mainstays Hierro, Sergi, and Guardiola were Raúl, at the peak of his powers, and Mendieta, named UEFA’s best midfielder. It was hard not to feel good about the team.

Spain played Norway in the first match. It was a disaster.

The Norwegians did nothing all game. They played with a single striker, and all the other men more or less behind the ball. But Spain, in classic style, somehow managed to turn total possession into few chances, and failed to convert even on those.

As first choice goalkeeper, Camacho chose Molina, goalkeeper of just-relegated Atlético. To me this seemed doubly strange, given that the always solid Cañizares, and young Iker Casillas, revelation of the year, were both available.

This choice paid off for Spain in the 65th minute, when Molina somehow contrived to turn a harmless long ball into a 1-0 deficit. Of course, Spanish finishing was as useless in the last half hour as it had been all game, and that margin was enough for the very conservative Norwegians.

I was destroyed. The last World Cup had ended in the first round, and I was so excited for the chance at redemption. I had run home from school to watch the game, bragging to my skeptical friends about the beating Spain was about to lay on the Norwegians. The next day, it took all my powers of argument to patiently explain to them that Spain was still the best team in the world.

Il est battu Molina…

They let the Spaniard kick?

To state that the 2005 Champions League final was one of the greatest matches of the decade shocks no one. The creaky Paolo Maldini scored in the first minute, and Milan had their way with a Liverpool side that showed a serious lack of commitment. Berlusconi’s team led 3-0 at the half, and could have scored more.

I chose that week to visit my brother in London, where he had spent the year studying. At the back of a packed pub, we watched relatively disappointed, as Spanish Liverpool had a Spanish coach and two Spanish internationals in the lineup. Also, it has never been pleasant to contemplate the idea of Milan owning the record of most European cups won, a title which belongs to Real Madrid, club of the century.

As everyone knows, led by Gerrard, gran capitán that he is, Liverpool quickly stormed back and in the space of five glorious minutes had scored two goals and drawn a penalty that could equalize.

So imagine our surprise when Liverpool chose Xabi Alonso, pride of Donosti, to take the kick. At that time, Spain had a terrible history with penalties, having been eliminated by that crude lottery from three tournaments in my lifetime. They even lost to South Korea! Nothing could be a harsher indictment of English football than turning to a Spanish penalty-taker.

We were trembling. Bound up in the kick were all our manias and complexes. Sure enough, our hearts plummeted when we saw Dida block Xabi’s shot, only for the Basque to bang in his own rebound. The emotion was too great, my brother and I roared! We only stopped when that terrible IN-GER-LAND sound began to emanate from opportunistic London voices.

An hour of memorable football remained to be enjoyed. The Italians failed to get the ball past Jerzy Dudek, and after a shootout where Xabi Alonso did not kick again, the Merseysiders triumphed.

My brother and I left the bar shaking our heads. Liverpool let the Spaniard take the kick, and lived to tell the tale. We hoped it would be a good omen.

Unity is strength

Growing up, my brother and I always laughed at our father’s great respect for eastern European sides. Spain would be drawn into a qualifying group featuring Slovakia, and while we would see six easy points, he would warn “those guys know how to play football.” When we thought of Poland and Hungary as pushovers, he told tales of Puskas, Kubala, or Boniek. But no matter how much he feared their potential, Spain never lost.

In the seventies, the Spanish team was a second-tier European side. The clubs weren’t winning anything, and the national team qualified for no international tournaments at all between 1966 and 1978. In 1972, it was the Soviets that blocked the road, and two years later the Yugoslavians denied Spain a chance at the World Cup. I suspect that these traumatic events must have had a strong effect on the psyche of my father, then in his early twenties.

The collapse of East European state socialism caught everyone by surprise and its effects reverberated into every facet of life. Football was of course no exception. And there has been perhaps no greater beneficiary of this geo-sporting realignment than Spain.

I looked at the results of the Spanish team against three communist giants - Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR. In the post-war period, Spain played Czechoslovakia nine times, winning three, drawing one, and losing five. Against Yugoslavia, they won six, drew three, and lost five. The Soviets beat Spain once in five matches.

But since the breakup of those countries, the outcomes are shocking. Spain has played Soviet successor states twenty-five times (Armenia, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan) without loss. In two matches against the Czechs, and four against the Slovaks - no losses. And out of twenty matches against the former Yugoslavian republics, apart from one friendly defeat to Croatia in 1994, Spain is unbeaten.

The experience of easy victories and easy qualification that my brother and I have known is what I believe explains the difference in perspective in our family. Spain has taken advantage of the collapse of the east European sides to seize a place in the top rank of the world game (a phenomenon repeated also in basketball, handball, and waterpolo).

In Spain, there are centrifugal forces that threaten to split the country apart. But lovers of good football should take note of the eastern experience, unity is strength. Instead, we might consider an old idea - the Iberian Federation. Now that would be a good team.

The one that got away

In life, the search for beauty is constant. Yet sometimes, we don’t see it when it is right in front of us, and other times, we find it, and let it slip through our fingers.

The world’s most popular art is football, and its greatest practitioner is Lionel Messi. I am an atheist, but he is god.

There are teams that will forever rue the fact that Messi escaped from them. As a boy, Leo was already a terror in Argentine junior leagues, but neither his team, Newell’s or the club that wanted to recruit him, River, was willing to spend the small sum that would solve his hormone deficiency and allow him to pursue a professional career. Instead it was Barça that was willing to invest. Never have they spent their money more wisely, and as the blaugrana make an effort to become the world’s biggest club, they will always have the stinginess of others to thank.

What breaks my heart is that Messi will never play for Spain. He moved to Barcelona at age thirteen, and is a holder of Spanish nationality. Of course Spain invited him to join the national team, but Messi loved Argentina too much.

Messi has scored goals at a higher rate for Barcelona than he has for Argentina, and this has won him some criticism in the southern hemisphere. There are even people who say he is not really Argentinian.

These commentators are morons. The problem in the Argentina-Messi relationship is not the great man, it’s the Argentinian football authorities. Why was he on the bench in Germany 2006? Why did they let Riquelme call the shots in 2007 in Venezuela? Why is Martín Palermo allowed within five miles of him? They don’t know what they have, and if they would only trust him, he will bring Argentina a third world title this summer.

For the supporters of Spain, there are no such doubts. We love Messi. Perhaps one day Leo will realize that he will be treated better in the old country, perhaps a beautiful catalana will catch his eye, perhaps Pep Guardiola will coach the national team, and we will see this new god in the red shirt…

Daring to hope…

In the directory

More than 100 responses have been collected in daringtohope’s urtak. We are in the Urtak directory now.

I thank you all for your questions and opinions!

And by the way: Will Spain win the World Cup? 60% say yes.

Daring to hope.

The greatest game of the eighties

Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy - the giants of world football - have long histories of glorious moments in the game. On the club side, Spain can go toe to toe with anyone, but on the national level, this has obviously not been the case. A solitary continental championship in 1964 cannot possibly compare.

The Spanish campaigns of the eighties were before my time. But the game that has passed into legend, and become a part of my memory, is little-known in the wider world. It’s not the 5-1 win over Denmark in 1986. Nor does it come from the 1984 tournament, where Spain lost to France in the final. And sadly, it has nothing to do with the wasted opportunity of Spain’s World Cup in 1982.

In the days of tournaments with fewer participants - qualification was no easy matter. By the end of 1983, it looked like Spain would not qualify for Euro 84. Going into the last match against Malta, Spain could tie the leader, Holland, with a win, but would need to make up a goal difference of eleven to go through.

Needing to win by eleven, Spain started slowly, scoring the first only in minute fifteen. 1-0. Ten minutes later, disaster struck. Malta scored! A quarter of the game gone, and Spain was no closer to qualifying. The first half ended 3-1 to Spain.

After the break, Spain kept coming, and scored and scored again. By the sixty-third minute, the score was 8-1. Goal 11 was scored with ten minutes to go. I can only imagine the agony the fans in the Sánchez Pizjuán of Seville must have been living. When Juan Señor finally put Spain eleven goals up, and ahead of the Dutch, the country celebrated as if it had won the World Cup.

That the most famous match of the decade should take place against Malta says something about the national football culture. Then again, it was truly epic. The 2008 superteam has since taught us to recognize true champions, but anyone who wants to understand the Spanish psyche would be well served to remember a famous game, Spain 12 - Malta 1.


The goals


Scenes of celebration

Zubizarreta’s worst moment

Spain came into the 1998 World Cup in France with high hopes. Real Madrid had poached its seventh European title from Zidane’s Juventus. Raúl and Morientes were entering their primes. Hierro, Luis Enrique, and Sergi, stars of the 1994 and 1996 campaigns still possessed all their powers. Only Pep Guardiola was injured and left out of the team.

I personally couldn’t have been more excited. I was twelve, and the bitter exits I had seen against Italy and England left me imagining that somehow divine justice meant that Spain finally had to do something. I even had my first Spanish jersey - a blue shirt, usually worn by the youth teams, which I treasured and still own.

Spain’s group, featuring Nigeria, Paraguay, and Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria was considered the group of death. In spite of that, we all sat down to watch the first game, against Nigeria, with a spirit of optimism.

Spain attacked from the whistle, and on the receiving end of an uncharacteristic long ball, Raúl got a shot off in the first ten seconds. When Hierro knocked in a free kick in the twenty-first minute, things were looking good. Spain after all has always been an excellent front-runner, taking good advantage of the opponent being forced to attack.

The Nigerians were fighters and equalized right away. In the second half, Raúl scored off another long ball, and things finally began to look really promising. Unfortunately, once again, one man stood between Spain and victory: our goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta.

My father always tells the story of going with my brother to see his Osasuna play Barcelona in the Camp Nou. Osasuna, as might be expected, didn’t do too much of anything, but Barça couldn’t score. Out of nowhere, an Osasuna player shot, and caught Barça’s goalie snoozing - a classic cantada. The culprit? Zubizarreta of course. The final score? Osasuna 1 - Barcelona 0.

Zubizarreta played more games than anyone else for Spain, and for as long as I remember we lived in fear of the cantada. For while Zubizarreta was a strong positional goalkeeper, capable of excellent saves, he seemed remarkably distracted by the standards of the professional athlete. In the 73rd minute against Nigeria, disaster struck.



Zubizarreta, as anyone can see, was the key factor in the goal.

Demoralized, Spain allowed a third goal, and left the stadium without a point. This was the key moment in the disastrous summer of 1998, when Spain was eliminated in the first round.

Years later, on a magnificent spring day in my last semester of university, I waited for a class to begin. With me was the teaching fellow, a Nigerian gentleman. I asked him if he was a soccer fan. “Yes of course,” he replied.

“My team is Spain,” I told him.

“Ah,” he said, “that was the greatest day.”

He should thank Andoni Zubizarreta.

The Basque Ideal of Beauty

Ismael Urzáiz is not the best known of the Spanish footballers. He played most of his professional career for Athletic Bilbao, and was one of those great players who seem to make it tremendously easy for his teammates to bounce balls off him and into the goal. I myself will always have a certain fondness for Urzáiz because of the two goals he scored in an epic 9-0 thrashing of Austria in the Euro 2000 qualifiers.

But there is another reason that Urzáiz sticks in my brain. Inexplicably to me, my father always pointed him out as the best-looking player on the Spanish side. While Spain’s players have never approached the prettiness of Italy’s, even in those pre-Fernando Torres days, Urzáiz did not stand out for his good looks. Though it’s true that his teammates Hierro, Abelardo, and Sergi are fairly ugly gentlemen, so perhaps to be the best of that bunch is to be damned with faint praise.

Or it could be the Navarran chauvinism I learned at a young age. Given that so many things from that small province are the best in the world, it should be no surprise that the top spot in the beauty contest should go to Urzáiz, from Tudela.

Rational argument could never resolve family differences. Urzáiz remains a paragon of pulchritude to some, but certainly not all. I leave you with some images of the great man, twenty-five times an international for Spain. Decide for yourselves.

Who is the greatest?

It is never easy to decide who is the greatest player. Pele and Maradona did battle for the title of player of the century, but if my father has been the judge, the verdict would have been simple, “Cruyff. Cruyff is the best.”

Establishing who has been the brightest Spanish star is similarly difficult. No Spaniard has ever won the World Player of the year, and none has won the Ballon d’Or since 1961. The lack of all-time legends is a probable reason for Spain’s underperfomance at international tournaments. Then again, it could be a symptom.

Over the next weeks, I will try to determine who is my all-time Spanish footballer. But in the interests of justice, all-time will be defined as players that I have actually watched, so it’s really a question of who is the greatest player of the last two decades.

In this post, I will nominate the first of ten candidates - Raúl, Spain’s leading scorer and most capped outfield player. Winner of three Champions Leagues and six domestic titles, he was the heart and soul of the team from 1998 to 2004. With 66 goals in the Champions League, he is that competition’s leading scorer by some distance.

Definitely the most dangerous player of any national team he was on, the Raúl’s attribute that I most admire is his hunger for victory. It is a shame that his decline from top form at a relatively young age has meant that he has missed out on Spain’s most glorious achievements, but if he had not been kept out of the stolen 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against South Korea, perhaps everything might have been different.

No discussion of the greatest Spanish player would be complete without consideration of Raúl.

Here are two Raul goals, the first against South Africa in 2002, typical of his work-rate, persistence, and opportunism. The second against Slovenia in 2000, demonstrating his excess of skill.

He was blind but now can see

From my friend Anil,

"It’s testament to their lacklustre performances in the 90s that growing up I never thought of Spain as a football powerhouse. I always viewed them as just another decent European team. I remember commenting to my mother in the world cup of 94 that Spain had had a good year, with Bruguera winning the French Open, and the football team making the quarterfinals! Indeed I was quite surprised to hear your constant indignation that they weren’t going far in the major tournaments. Oh, how times have changed, eh."

Let’s hope that this summer is not another year of indignation.

A bad beginning

Euro 2000 began with high hopes. Under sweaty new coach José Antonio Camacho, Spain qualified for the tournament with ludicrous ease. During the campaign, they had 42 goals for and only 5 against, which included a memorable 9-0 destruction of Austria.

That year, Spanish clubs had also run riot in Europe. Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia all reached the semi-finals of a Champions League which ended with Real Madrid’s eighth title.

Joining the 90s mainstays Hierro, Sergi, and Guardiola were Raúl, at the peak of his powers, and Mendieta, named UEFA’s best midfielder. It was hard not to feel good about the team.

Spain played Norway in the first match. It was a disaster.

The Norwegians did nothing all game. They played with a single striker, and all the other men more or less behind the ball. But Spain, in classic style, somehow managed to turn total possession into few chances, and failed to convert even on those.

As first choice goalkeeper, Camacho chose Molina, goalkeeper of just-relegated Atlético. To me this seemed doubly strange, given that the always solid Cañizares, and young Iker Casillas, revelation of the year, were both available.

This choice paid off for Spain in the 65th minute, when Molina somehow contrived to turn a harmless long ball into a 1-0 deficit. Of course, Spanish finishing was as useless in the last half hour as it had been all game, and that margin was enough for the very conservative Norwegians.

I was destroyed. The last World Cup had ended in the first round, and I was so excited for the chance at redemption. I had run home from school to watch the game, bragging to my skeptical friends about the beating Spain was about to lay on the Norwegians. The next day, it took all my powers of argument to patiently explain to them that Spain was still the best team in the world.

Il est battu Molina…

They let the Spaniard kick?

To state that the 2005 Champions League final was one of the greatest matches of the decade shocks no one. The creaky Paolo Maldini scored in the first minute, and Milan had their way with a Liverpool side that showed a serious lack of commitment. Berlusconi’s team led 3-0 at the half, and could have scored more.

I chose that week to visit my brother in London, where he had spent the year studying. At the back of a packed pub, we watched relatively disappointed, as Spanish Liverpool had a Spanish coach and two Spanish internationals in the lineup. Also, it has never been pleasant to contemplate the idea of Milan owning the record of most European cups won, a title which belongs to Real Madrid, club of the century.

As everyone knows, led by Gerrard, gran capitán that he is, Liverpool quickly stormed back and in the space of five glorious minutes had scored two goals and drawn a penalty that could equalize.

So imagine our surprise when Liverpool chose Xabi Alonso, pride of Donosti, to take the kick. At that time, Spain had a terrible history with penalties, having been eliminated by that crude lottery from three tournaments in my lifetime. They even lost to South Korea! Nothing could be a harsher indictment of English football than turning to a Spanish penalty-taker.

We were trembling. Bound up in the kick were all our manias and complexes. Sure enough, our hearts plummeted when we saw Dida block Xabi’s shot, only for the Basque to bang in his own rebound. The emotion was too great, my brother and I roared! We only stopped when that terrible IN-GER-LAND sound began to emanate from opportunistic London voices.

An hour of memorable football remained to be enjoyed. The Italians failed to get the ball past Jerzy Dudek, and after a shootout where Xabi Alonso did not kick again, the Merseysiders triumphed.

My brother and I left the bar shaking our heads. Liverpool let the Spaniard take the kick, and lived to tell the tale. We hoped it would be a good omen.

Unity is strength

Growing up, my brother and I always laughed at our father’s great respect for eastern European sides. Spain would be drawn into a qualifying group featuring Slovakia, and while we would see six easy points, he would warn “those guys know how to play football.” When we thought of Poland and Hungary as pushovers, he told tales of Puskas, Kubala, or Boniek. But no matter how much he feared their potential, Spain never lost.

In the seventies, the Spanish team was a second-tier European side. The clubs weren’t winning anything, and the national team qualified for no international tournaments at all between 1966 and 1978. In 1972, it was the Soviets that blocked the road, and two years later the Yugoslavians denied Spain a chance at the World Cup. I suspect that these traumatic events must have had a strong effect on the psyche of my father, then in his early twenties.

The collapse of East European state socialism caught everyone by surprise and its effects reverberated into every facet of life. Football was of course no exception. And there has been perhaps no greater beneficiary of this geo-sporting realignment than Spain.

I looked at the results of the Spanish team against three communist giants - Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR. In the post-war period, Spain played Czechoslovakia nine times, winning three, drawing one, and losing five. Against Yugoslavia, they won six, drew three, and lost five. The Soviets beat Spain once in five matches.

But since the breakup of those countries, the outcomes are shocking. Spain has played Soviet successor states twenty-five times (Armenia, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan) without loss. In two matches against the Czechs, and four against the Slovaks - no losses. And out of twenty matches against the former Yugoslavian republics, apart from one friendly defeat to Croatia in 1994, Spain is unbeaten.

The experience of easy victories and easy qualification that my brother and I have known is what I believe explains the difference in perspective in our family. Spain has taken advantage of the collapse of the east European sides to seize a place in the top rank of the world game (a phenomenon repeated also in basketball, handball, and waterpolo).

In Spain, there are centrifugal forces that threaten to split the country apart. But lovers of good football should take note of the eastern experience, unity is strength. Instead, we might consider an old idea - the Iberian Federation. Now that would be a good team.

The one that got away
In the directory
The greatest game of the eighties
Zubizarreta’s worst moment
The Basque Ideal of Beauty
Who is the greatest?
He was blind but now can see
A bad beginning
They let the Spaniard kick?
Unity is strength

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Victory in 2010

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