Tag Archives: Spain

Royal return for kings of Europe

The Spanish players pose with the Euro 2008 trophy at Madrid’s Barajas Airport.

MADRID — The victorious Spanish national side arrived home from Euro 2008 to a heroes’ welcome last night, as around 100,000 jubilant Spaniards crammed into Madrid’s Plaza de Colon to greet them. The team’s private plane — decorated with the word “Campeones” — left Innsbruck at 5pm local time and landed at Madrid’s Barajas Airport at around 7:40pm. Coach Luis Aragonés and captain Iker Casillas were the first to appear with the Henri Delaunay trophy.

Many fans were at the airport, and thousands more lined the streets, as the team made their way through the capital aboard an open-top bus, the sides of which were emblazoned with a roja shirt and the words ¡España Siempre!” Spain’s players were dressed in their red shirts, with the exception of Sergio Ramos, who chose this moment to remember Antonio Puerta, the young Sevilla defender who collapsed and died during a game last summer. As the bus arrived in Plaza de Colon, squeezing between people deliriously waving Spanish flags, fans began to sing (to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) “Fer-nan-do Tor-res, la-la-la la-laa-laaa!” On a specially constructed stage, outgoing coach Aragonés took the microphone: “I have the best team in the world!” he declared. Iker Casillas then led the usual rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions”.

Fans in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon greet their heroes.

The following day, the more formally attired European Champions enjoyed a reception at the royal Zarzuela gardens. King Juan Carlos saved most praise for outgoing coach Aragonés, apologizing for not having a cape for him to wear. Queen Sofia, Prince Felipe, Princess Letizia and Infanta Elena were also excited to greet Spain’s winning team, as they posed for photos together with the trophy. The players later met with Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Spain coach Luis Aragonés presents the trophy to the royal family.

Since Spain’s European success on Sunday, there has been some talk about this triumph unifying the the country by uniting its various political regions, putting an end to the division which dominates Spanish society and football. I doubt this will happen. My friends in Barcelona — Catalans and Barça fans — were hoping for a German victory on Sunday night. I’m sure they agree that it will take more than a simple football team to make people forget years of cultural oppression, and give up a fight for political and economic independence which has been going on for decades.

An official photograph of the European Champions and the Spanish royal family in the Zarzuela gardens.

¡Campeones de Europa!

Spain captain Iker Casillas raises aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy (top) before his team-mates join in the fun under a shower of ticker-tape (above).

VIENNA — A goal by Fernando Torres ensured Spain became European Champions for the second time in their history tonight, defeating Germany 1-0 in the final of Euro 2008 at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium. It’s Spain’s first title since they won the European Championship back in 1964 in Madrid; as goalkeeper captain Iker Casillas raised aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy into the Austrian evening, he must have hoped this victory will perhaps lay to rest Spain’s unwanted tag of perennial underachievers which has plagued its national side ever since. It is certainly a greater achievement than Greece’s entirely unexpected win four years ago, in that the pressure on the Spaniards to go far in becomes is greater with each passing tournament. The title of Spain’s official Euro 2008 song roughly translates as, “Let’s Get Beyond The Quarter-Finals”, revealing an element of self-deprecating humour not always evident in much of Spain’s sporting media.

A nervous royal couple King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia (suitably dressed in all-red) stand for the national anthem.

History was definitely against Spain before the match, as they faced Germany, a nation which knows better than any other what it takes to get to a tournament final and win it. Germany’s captain, Michael Ballack, instrumental in his side’s run to the final, had partly recovered from a calf strain and was passed fit to at least start the match. Spain were without their top scorer, David Villa, who had been injured in the semi-final. Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas — who as a substitute had transformed the game with Russia — came in to the side. Although they would inevitably miss Villa’s trickery, I sensed his misfortune might prove a blessing in disguise. Fabregas’ inclusion meant Spain would play with a lone striker — the powerful Fernando Torres — with Fabregas sitting behind in a playmaking role. I felt this move could work to their advantage in a tight final against the robust Germans.

Spain’s starting eleven (without David Villa) line-up before the final.

Spain appeared nervous in the opening moments, and Sergio Ramos was nearly punished after gifting possession to Miroslav Klose in his own half. But once the game settled Spain began to assert themselves. Lehmann pulled off a fine one-handed save from his own defender, as Xavi Hernandez’ cross pinged off Christoph Metzelder. The German goalkeeper was nowhere to be seen minutes later as Torres climbed high to reach Fabregas’ cross and direct his header onto the foot of the post. Germany’s defence was struggling to cope with Torres, whose strength and pace led to the opening goal. The Liverpool striker latched onto a through-ball from Xavi, and somehow muscled his way around Philip Lahm to lift the ball over the onrushing Lehmann and into the net.

Fernando Torres puts Spain in front

Fernando Torres leaps over Lehmann as the ball sails into the German net for the opening goal.

A Spanish lead would inevitably make the Germans come out and play, and my feeling was almost that the goal had arrived too early for Spain, allowing Germany a whole hour to get back into the match. It was imperative for Spain to arrive at half-time ahead: an equalizing goal before the break would have shattered Spanish exuberance and restored Germany’s infinite self-belief. But barring a Ballack volley which Sergio Ramos skillfully blocked, Germany had offered little threat as the sides walked back to the dressing rooms. On the basis of enterprise and chances, Spain were deservedly in front, although Germany felt unfortunate when Roberto Rosetti failed to award them a penalty after Marchena had controlled the ball with his hand in the area. The Italian referee instead showed a yellow card to an agitated Ballack, who at one point had to leave the field to receive stitches for a cut above the eye.

Germany captain Michael Ballack approaches a linesman to protest a decision.

The second half began as expected. Spain relented allowing Germany to apply increasing pressure to their defence, and though Ballack miscued a shot into the side netting, it seemed a German goal was not far in coming. The longer the game remained at 1-0, the more likely I imagined the Germans to claw their way back, as they have in so many matches of this kind. Between 1966 and 1996 the German national team reached ten international finals, winning half of them. Only in the last ten years has its machine-like dominance of international competition grinded to a halt, and even in that period they reached another World Cup Final. But somehow Spain were determined to defy history and stereotype, and came closer themselves to adding a second goal. An unmarked Sergio Ramos saw his diving header saved by Lehmann, and then the industrious Brazilian-born Marcos Senna — one of the tournament’s revelations in Spain’s midfield — started a move which very nearly ended in his own personal triumph.

Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas punches clear from a rare German attack.

In the remaining minutes, Spain’s aging coach Luis Aragonés removed Fabregas and the plucky David Silva, plugging the midfield with the more workman-like styles of Güiza and Xabi Alonso. Germany’s Joachim Löw threw on his reserve forwards, the ineffective Mario Gomez and another nationalized Brazilian, Kevin Kuranyi, in an attempt to cause Spain problems at the back. But together they combined nothing, and Casillas was left with little to do for much of the second half. Oddly, the final five minutes were Spain’s most comfortable of the match, and Los Rojos seemed the more likely to score in the dying stages.

A dejected Bastian Schweinsteiger lies exhausted after the final whistle.

After so many years of never quite living up to expectations, I think few people would begrudge Spain their moment of glory. They have proved to be the most consistent side at Euro 2008, winning all six matches and outlasting early favourites Holland and Portugal. Much like Italy’s World Cup victory in Germany two years ago, Spain’s success is certainly a triumph of collective team spirit and tactical maturity. And like Marcello Lippi’s Italy in 2006, Aragonés’ Spain did not have the luxury of a Maradona or even a Zidane in their squad, that one player they look to to pull the side through the tournament. Even UEFA president Michel Platini — the last player whose class and goals dominated a European Championship in 1984 — must have recognized that these days no tournament can be won single-handedly. But to win a final it sometimes only takes one individual to produce a very special moment: tonight it belonged to El Niño.

Fernando Torres celebrates Spain’s remarkable triumph: the 24 year-old saved his only goal of the tournament for the final.

Donadoni exits and Lippi returns, as Italy look back to the future

A fan at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport attempts to lift Roberto Donadoni’s spirits, as Italy return defeated from Euro 2008.

ROME — Four days after Italy’s exit from Euro 2008, the country’s football federation, the FIGC, yesterday announced the termination of Roberto Donadoni’s contract as the national team’s head coach. He will be replaced by Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to World Cup victory in Germany in 2006. Donadoni’s contract contained a clause stating it would only be renewed should Italy reach the Euro 2008 semi-finals — the Azzurri fell at the quarter-final stage, losing on penalties to Spain, leaving federation president Giancarlo Abete with no alternative. “I’m sorry this situation should be determined by a penalty,” said Donadoni as he left the FIGC headquarters in Rome. “But one match can’t erase the positive progress my Italy has made in these two years.” Abete had even approached Donadoni on the eve of the tournament to offer a healthy compensation package should Italy fail, which the former Livorno and Genoa coach refused to accept: “It’s not a question of money,” he said.

Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas made saves from Daniele De Rossi (top) and Antonio Di Natale (above), as Italy crashed out of the Euro 2008 quarter-final after a penalty shoot-out.

I’ve always felt a tad sorry for Donadoni — after all, this is the man who missed a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out against Argentina at Italia ’90. Years later, after appearing in the World Cup final at USA ’94, and following the conclusion of an illustrious playing career with Milan (with a brief parenthesis at New York Metrostars), he took lowly Livorno to the upper echelons of Serie A, only to be fired by the team’s petulant president, Aldo Spinelli, for “lack of coaching experience.” Donadoni certainly did lack big club experience when he took over the national side in August 2006. With the euphoria surrounding Italy’s World Cup win still in the air, it was always going to be a challenge for Donadoni to assert his own identity on the newly-crowned world champions, and he suffered criticism throughout his reign as coach for sticking by too many of Italy’s aging World Cup winners. Lippi’s shadow loomed over Donadoni, right until the end.

The decision to recall Lippi is certainly a strange one, though perhaps typically conservative of the FIGC, as Italy looks to the past in the search for future glory. The term “minestra riscaldata” or “warmed-up soup” is used in Italian football to unfavourably describe the choice to bring back a former coach or player. It was first coined in the mid-1990s, when both Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello each suffered sorry second spells as coaches at Milan. Now fans and journalists alike must be fearing the same fate for Lippi. His decision to return to a team which he left in the most triumphant manner possible baffles me. The chances of Italy winning the next World Cup in South Africa are naturally slim, and failure to repeat the success of 2006 will, inevitably, forever tarnish Lippi’s carefully cultivated image as cigar-chomping world champion. But the 60 year-old claims he has turned down multiple offers from top clubs and national sides in the last two years, and is movitated by his so-called “debt to the federation” (a possible allusion to the effects of calciopoli on his original decision to quit).

Marcello Lippi puffs contently after leading Italy to World Cup glory in Berlin, 2006.

Lippi arrived at his first press conference as coach, fresh from the beach of his hometown of Viareggio, looking tanned and ready to “pick up where he left off.” He immediately played down talks of him trying to convince Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta out of international retirement (“We have to respect people’s decisions”) but said he would consider “all Italian players from 18 to 40. Even Cassano.”

One player who will not be thrilled to learn of Lippi’s return is Roma defender Christian Panucci. The pair feuded together at Inter in 1999, and Panucci was deliberately left out of all Lippi’s subsequent Italy squads. Panucci returned to the international fold under Donadoni, and at 35, became the second oldest goalscorer* in a European Championship, tapping in the equalizer (below) in Italy’s 1-1 draw with Romania at Euro 2008.

*Panucci would have been the oldest, had Austria’s Ivica Vastic, 38, not scored against Poland the previous day!

For Italy defender Christian Panucci, Azzurri joy was short-lived.