The story of Spain’s ‘terrifying confidence’ – and how it conquered the world

Since its birth in the Middle Ages, Spain has been an imperialist power, with imperial ambitions that have often been thwarted by other European powers. But it seems that since the establishment of parliamentary democracy, Spain has gained a foreign policy that can stand up against other powers, especially the United States. This is evident in the way Spain has been the leader on the international stage, in particular when it comes to the Middle East and Africa.

In the early 15th century, the Spanish arrived on the shores of the New World ready to take on the world. At that time, the Incas had already ruled over a vast empire. For centuries, the Incas had mastered the art of war, with spies and assassins, destroying the empires of their rivals by using guile, trickery and traps. And then the Spanish arrived, bringing an entirely new and unfamiliar way of war. Spain had no previous experience of war, and no military experience to speak of. The Romans, the Carthaginians, the Persians, none of them had had an idea of how to fight war. They had never invented a gun, or a tank, or a submarine, or a plane. And

The moment when years of progress turned into eternal glory for Spain. word-image-18666 word-image-18667 The 6th. In September 2006, Spain suffered another setback in front of 14,500 fans at Windsor Park when they lost the Euro 2008 qualifying match to Northern Ireland 3-2. No one at home was particularly surprised. This is a team that has been flummoxed over the years to cheat. Since their only title – the 1964 European Championship – they have only once gone beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament. Luis Aragones, the experienced La Liga coach appointed in 2004, began his reign with a promising run of 25 games without a win. But that optimism faded again, this time after a 1/16 defeat in the 2006 World Cup against an aging French team that many thought was pretty beatable. After three months, Aragonese realized that something had to be done. That night in Northern Ireland convinced him that something had to change. It was the start of something big. Six years later, Spain was crowned the most successful international team of all time. That’s what happened. word-image-18668 There have always been rumours of friction and conflict between players from different clubs and regions in Spain. When they lost the 1984 European Championship final to France due to a terrible mistake by the usually reliable goalkeeper Luis Arconada, some even absurdly claimed that he had made the mistake on purpose because he was Basque and did not want Spain to win. There were a lot of players from Real and Barcelona – and when we got together there was a certain distance between the players from the different teams, former Spanish striker Fernando Morientes said of the team he played for in the early Aragon days. There was not the consistency in daily life that we see today. This time, however, politics was not the main obstacle to success. First of all, it was a tactic. Against Northern Ireland, in Spain’s second league game since the 2006 World Cup, the Aragonese realised that the style of his predecessors – straight through and even long ball – was not working. But to bring about the change he wanted, he had to make some tough decisions. A decision that brought Aragonese dangerously close to losing his job. Real Madrid superstar Raul was more than just a player. He was an icon. For many Spaniards, he was the embodiment of how they envisioned football in their country. After the Belfast defeat, the Aragonese saw that Raul was no longer part of the overall plan of Spain. He threw an attacker. The Madrid media went into a stupor. Legend’s axe is bad enough, but it was made worse by what they consider a lack of respect when they didn’t contact the player personally to let him know. Raul was 35 years old. The match in Northern Ireland was his 102nd for the Spanish national team. This will be his last time. Aragonese didn’t lose. I didn’t call Raul to say he wasn’t qualified, he said. He’s not an exceptional case. The fact is that the players I selected best fit our needs. While the coach tried to reinvent the Spanish style of play, the Madrid media were sharpening their knives. A loss against Sweden and a draw in Iceland put the team at risk of missing out on Euro 2008 when they were eliminated in 13th place. From October 2007 in Denmark. A defeat in Aarhus would almost certainly decide the fate of the Aragonese. Instead, it became the night of the Spanish football renaissance. Aragones has been fined £2 000 by the Spanish Football Federation for racist comments about Thierry Henry in 2004. Henry called on Fifa to set an example and impose a tougher sanction. word-image-18669 Former Barcelona striker David Villa recalled the match and said: We had everything to play with. If we had lost, we could at best have played the play-offs. We probably wouldn’t even be able to do that. The chance for Eurek Aragonese came in the 39th minute. It wasn’t until the 30th minute that defender Sergio Ramos slid the ball over the Danish goalkeeper for Spain’s second goal, following a 30-pass move. They won 3:1 and went into the Euro as group winners. More importantly, it marked the arrival of a new Spain defined by the past and collective work. Fernando Hierro, who was then sporting director of the Spanish national team, recalls: There was a lot of tension before the match because it was a very important match. Denmark was very strong, but we were calm, and Luis was charged with conveying this calmness to all the speakers: Don’t worry, relax, we’ll win tomorrow 3-1. Incredibly, he even got the score right. This marked the emergence of a new Spain, a team characterized by ball possession and teamwork. Midfielder Marcos Senna summed up the change in style well: For the first time, the Aragonese decided to work with small balls in the middle. The manager looked at the gifts available to him. A lot of very good midfielders. Pass the ball. He decided to use them, but add some spices to them. He repeatedly said to Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Santi Cazorla: How do you win races? To score, right? Why the hell don’t you score more goals? The foundation has been laid for a style that is both beautiful to look at and effective.

Breaking our curse – Euro 2008

From left to right: Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Joan Capdevila in training during Euro 2008 word-image-18670 After securing a place in the UEFA EURO 2008 finals in Austria and Switzerland, Spain have the chance to end their 44-year wait for a place in the final. I remember the day we arrived in Austria, said left-back Joan Capdevila. We arrived in the afternoon, and the normal thing would have been to start training immediately. But Louis said we had until the next day. Imagine that! We were very surprised: We had just arrived and he was already releasing us. I think we started winning at that point because he knew that kind of detail would bring us together. After winning their group, Spain qualified for the quarter-finals against lowly Italy, who they had never beaten at a major tournament. It gave him another dimension, Kapdevila said. They are a prestigious team and we had the problem that we always lost to bigger countries. We played well, but we lost. Spain dominated the match but could not score a goal. At the end of the extension the score was 0-0. A penalty shootout was imminent. Aragonese turns to his assistant Jose Ufarte and asks him to prepare for the shooting. Jesus Paredes, then coach of the Spanish fitness team, takes up the story: He [Ufarte] began to draw up a list of penalties, and when he had doubts about one or two, he consulted Aragonese. The manager said: Show me. He looked at Ufarte’s list, crossed him off and put Cesc Fabregas as the last taker. Capdevila clearly remembers Fabregas’ precise shot. I was halfway down the field and didn’t see the goal, he said. Gianluigi Buffon was so big he looked like a giant. I don’t know how Cesc could have scored that penalty. If it had been me, I would have had a huge headache – and I was one of the older players. One point and Spain has lost. Italy took two penalties from four – Spain took one. word-image-18671 Fabregas steps forward and calmly places the ball into Buffon’s left corner. Spain has finally beaten Italy. Back in the locker room, he was approached by Paredes, who told him: Great penalty Cesc – you looked so confident. Jesus, Fabregas replied, it’s the first penalty I’ve taken since I was 14. Alfredo Relano, former editor of AS, one of Spain’s most influential sports newspapers, said: At that moment everything changed for me. After that I had no doubts about the national team until the end of the Euro and even after. Looks like we broke the curse and played really well. This has happened all over Spain. We put our pessimism aside. Hierro adds: By this time, Spain had become the dominant power. Then we changed the story. For generations of Spaniards, including José Luis Zapatero, who was prime minister at the time, it was a defining moment in their lives. According to Cesc, people my age will always be grateful because I am part of the generation that thought Spain would never get past the quarter-finals. The small margins. Spain’s success in the penalty kicks added to the momentum. word-image-18672 In the semifinals, an excellent Spanish team played for free against Russia, who secured their best result of the tournament with a 3-0 victory, reaching their first final in 24 years. According to Capdevila, it was removed from the payload. You saw the best of our team in the semifinals. When we started this match, we were confident that we would make it to the final no matter what. Germany will be next. On the eve of the game, Aragonese held a team speech that the players in attendance still remember. He brought us together in the middle of the field during practice, Capdevila recalls. He said: Wallace won’t play. We all thought: Wallace? Who’s Wallace? I think Javi said this: Boss, who’s Wallace? You mean Ballack? Never mind, I’ll call him Wallace, replied the Aragonese. It took the tension out of the finale when we all fell over laughing. It was the first final for Spain since losing to France at Euro 84 – and a chance to win their first title since 1964. word-image-18673 The 29th. June 2008 in Vienna, the influence of the Aragonese once again proved decisive. In the dressing room before the final, he said to striker Fernando Torres: Niño, stand between the two central defenders, forcing them to retreat. Wait on one side of them and run after them when you have the ball. Fernando Torres – then of Liverpool – scores in the 33rd minute. He scored the decisive goal in the second minute to give Spain a 1-0 victory. word-image-18674 Looking back, it’s a perfect description of how Torres broke through the German defence and, after receiving the ball from Xavi, scored the winning goal. Villa says: After all those dark days in which its own country was knocked out of the World Cup or European Championships for one reason or another, the country breathed a sigh of relief that day and said: At last. For Spain, this was just the beginning. But they would have gone on even without the Aragonese. Aragones has already decided to leave. A week later, he went to his last job – Fenerbahçe. word-image-18675 In September 2007, Aragonese announced that it would cease operations after the summer of 2008, whether it won or lost. The Spanish Football Federation has prepared a replacement for him. Former Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque has reached an agreement. But when the plane of the Spanish team, on its way home from the European Championships, flew into the airspace of Innsbruck for about an hour, the entire team started chanting Luis over and over again – ¡Quedate! Louis – stay! Aragonese is visibly moved by this show of sympathy, but at this stage he would have gladly changed his mind, and the players want him to stay at his post. The decision was made by the then director of Spanish football, Hierro. He stuck to the original plan of bringing in Del Bosque. I have no doubt that the way I made the decision was the right one, Hierro says now. My conscience is clear on this point. On 1. In February 2014, Aragonese – a controversial figure, but a man who ultimately brought success to his football-obsessed country – died at the age of 75. Capdevila says: We are all very grateful for what he has done: Firstly, he put together a great team full of talent and a great atmosphere, and secondly, he passed on all his football wisdom. He was a wise man. We all have fond memories of him, as he impressed us all.

World Victory

Del Bosque said he had the perfect plan from the start to succeed. Despite this, he changed about a third of the team at the 2010 World Cup and another third for the 2012 European Championship. The trick was to present new faces and still give the impression that nothing had changed. Spain went to the World Cup in South Africa after an unbeaten qualifying campaign. In the first group match they lost 1-0 to Switzerland. It was a big setback and almost unthinkable because we were not prepared for it, Del Bosque said. We did not try to assign responsibility. On the contrary, we are all collectively guilty. The emphasis was on not letting doubts seep in, but the tension leading up to the next game against Honduras was palpable. Villa later said it was the most difficult moment of the entire World Cup. Qualification was still possible if the next two games were won twice. A defeat would almost certainly mean Spain’s elimination. Honduras was defeated 2-0, but a draw in their final group game against Chile could have meant relegation. The silence before the game, both on the bus and in the locker room, was deafening. Del Bosque explains the atmosphere: A few years ago I had a manager who demanded absolute silence in the locker room an hour before the game, with no spectators, to ensure maximum concentration. But this is a band that plays loud, energetic music to get in the mood. On match days against Honduras and Chile, you could hear a fly pass by. The Real Madrid midfielder played 18 times for the Spanish national team during his active career between 1975 and 1980. word-image-18676 After Spain’s 2-1 victory over Chile, Del Bosque told his players that they had four finals ahead of them: the Round of 16, the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and finally the final itself. First Portugal was defeated, then Paraguay in another crucial quarterfinal. Spain have never progressed beyond this stage of the World Cup. Again, the wheels almost fell off. Everyone thought Paraguay was a team we would beat easily, but nothing was further from the truth, says Capdevila. The Paraguayans played like their lives depended on it. Villa said afterwards that it looked like there were 20 of them on the pitch. The match was a nervous one for Spain: Iker Casillas saved a penalty kick and then Xavi missed his free kick twice. It was a crazy game, a game where you knew whoever scored first would win, Villa said. Cheers after Villa’s winning goal against Paraguay. 1-0 to Spain will be the usual result. word-image-18677 Del Bosque remembers it well: Sometimes my legs would literally shake, it’s something you can’t control. Villa delivered the decisive blow, a bizarre goal that finally flew into the net after hitting both posts, as if the ball was struggling to stay away. Villa said later that it was actually the golden goal, probably my most important goal. The next opponent was Germany and, as in 2008, Spain saved its best performance of the tournament for the semi-finals, taking the lead with the winning goal in Barcelona. With the score tied at halftime, centre-back Carles Puyol told Xavi on the way back to the dressing room that if he had a corner kick in the second half, he should take it in the penalty area, knowing he could soar into the air and score, as he had done before for his club against Real Madrid. Pujol scored the winning goal in the second half for his third consecutive 1-0 win in the round of 16. This ensures that they will face the Netherlands in the final in Johannesburg. Spanish and Dutch players witness the biggest spectacle in football word-image-18678 Former Prime Minister Zapatero recalls his feelings about the match. I was there with my wife and daughter, and we were completely at a loss, he says. We’ve never been so tense. I’ve never seen my wife so engrossed in a football game. Del Bosque said: We defended our country. But we also defended our style of football. Capdevila can’t remember competing in a more physical game. Maybe they thought we had better ball possession than they did and that aggression was the only way to stop us, he reasoned. But I guess that was overkill. I was very surprised. Just when everyone was convinced the game would end in a penalty shootout – Arjen Robben missed a great chance for the Orange in the second half – Iniesta’s goal in the 116th minute put the game in jeopardy for good. The ball fell at my feet and I had two chances, Fabregas said. Shoot or pass. I always wondered what would happen when I took the picture. But I saw Iniesta in a great position and it was the best moment of our careers. Iniesta held out and Spain succeeded – 2010 World Cup winners word-image-18679 Those 70 yards to the corner flag were the fastest I’ve ever run, Capdevila said. I’d even take Gareth Bale over him! But it was the most powerful and beautiful moment of my life. It was unique and we still think back of it with great emotion. Villa says: We thought this tournament belonged to a Brazilian, an Italian or a German and never thought that someone in a red shirt would take the trophy. It seemed like something so complicated, almost impossible. Capdevila adds: One of the most emotional experiences I had on the football field was lifting the trophy and taking a lap of honor. I could see my poor parents crying in the stadium. My mother paid 1,200 euros to see this match. You remember a lot of things, like being driven to practice every day as a kid. You understand the sacrifice they made and to see that rewarded in a stadium with 80,000 people was almost unimaginable. It was very moving to see my parents cry.

Three in a row – history is being made

Sapin went to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine as a favorite, but not everyone was a fan. Why don’t they shoot more often? The World Cup winner and manager of Germany, Franz Beckenbauer, responded to a question about Spain. Despite this criticism, they are more effective than ever. According to Zapatero: The final of Euro 2012 was perhaps the greatest moment for the team created by the Aragonese and Del Bosque. The team ran like clockwork. No one has ever won a final as convincingly as Spain, who beat Italy 4-0 to become the first international team to win three major tournaments in a row. Del Bosque described his team’s performance in the final as the best in our history. Hierro adds: They saw themselves as winners in the Spanish national team, and when they came together as full players, they were already used to winning. It’s a wonderful and very difficult thing they’ve achieved, to have such a good rapport between them, and that’s thanks to Aragone’s gamble with the so-called minor players during Euro 2008. They all felt very comfortable, and that’s easier when you’re winning, but the fact that they felt so comfortable with the philosophy and the style of football really made them very strong. Torres – the man who scored the winning goal at Euro 2008 – celebrates with his daughter on the pitch in 2012. word-image-18680 Capdevila expresses the feelings of an entire generation when he says: What I was able to experience are stories that I will tell my children and grandchildren many years from now. I began to despair of talking to them about it. I’m so glad. I have had the privilege of sharing a locker room with some of the best players in the world. But after making history, the dream of a fourth consecutive title quickly faded. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil marked the end of the road for this conquering Spanish team. Was it complacency on the part of the players? Misplaced loyalty to the old guard? Or is it just the end of an era for a team that has dominated world football for the past six years? I think it was a little bit of everything. Del Bosque wanted to give this generation a send-off on the biggest stage. But the beginning of the end came as the road to total glory: with a wonderful purpose. This time it was Robin van Persie’s header, an incredible finish, that gave the Netherlands the lead after Xabi Alonso had given Spain the lead in the first game. Spain was humiliated 5-1. The truth is that for a team that will forever be remembered as the best of its generation – a team that reinvented the approach to how football should be played – the party was over. But what a party it was!   word-image-18681 word-image-18682

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