For a whole generation, Spain 2008 – 2012 is the defining international side.
Under the guidance of Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque, La Roja won a hat-trick of major international trophies during a spell of supremacy many thought impossible in the modern era.
In the second instalment of our HISTORY LESSONS series, I re-watched Spain vs Italy in the quarter-final of Euro 2008 to gaze upon its magnitude with hindsight.
Why this game?
Good question — most who witnessed the fixture would consider a replay a form of mild torture.
The BBC’s post-match report at the time described it as a ‘dour goalless draw’ while the Guardian’s minute-by-minute labelled it ‘dull’ and ‘BBBOOOOOORRRRIIIIINNNNGGGG’.
But while it may be a drab 0-0 on the surface, that night in Vienna proved to be a turning point for Spain’s psychology and identity.
To understand the dynamics at work, you only have to look at the pre-game predictions.
Despite Fabio Cannavaro’s absence through injury, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso’s suspensions, and Luca Toni’s wasteful form in front of goal, most tipped Italy to progress.
As the game kicks off, ITV co-commentator David Pleat describes his prediction of a narrow Italy win as ‘less than bold’.
Why? Because Spain were seen as serial bottlers.
In the seven tournaments prior to Euro 2008, Spain were eliminated at the quarter-final stage four times.
The national team were informally known as ‘quarts’ among some fans, having never progressed beyond the quarter-finals in a major tournament before 2008.
In contrast, Italy were seen as a team who thrived in a tournament environment.
And of course, the Azzurri were reigning world champions at the time.
Basically, Spain were seen as perennial losers, and Italy as natural winners.
At least, that’s how it used to be…
The game may be cagey, but it is not utterly devoid of quality.
Marcos Senna is immense in midfield and nearly benefits from a rare Gianluigi Buffon mistake when the Juventus legend spills a long-range effort onto the post.
While Iker Casillas produces two high-class saves to deny Mauro Camoranesi and Antonio Di Natale.
However, I am more concerned with the dynamics at play for Spain, a powerhouse under construction.
A double substitution catches the eye just after the hour mark: Xavi and Andres Iniesta off, Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla on.
Firstly, it’s evidence of the squad’s famous depth, but it also shows Aragones did not believe Xavi and Iniesta were imperative to break down a disciplined defence in a high-pressure knockout game.
This would change under Del Bosque, as the Barcelona pair became emblematic of Spain’s approach and success.
It’s interesting to note the other differences from the widely-recognised version of Spain’s Golden Generation.
There’s two genuine strikers in David Villa and Fernando Torres, a far cry from the 4-6-0 they would implement at Euro 2012.
Carlos Marchena partners Carles Puyol at the heart of defence with Gerard Pique still a year away from an international debut and long-haired Sergio Ramos enjoying his right-back years.
David Silva’s role is noticeably different to the one he’s perfected at Man City over the last decade.
El Mago leaves the metronomic passing to those deeper and looks to shoot on sight after dribbling in from wide positions — a considerably more selfish iteration than the one Premier League fans are familiar with.
After 120 goalless minutes, the referee calls for a shootout.
And here arises another psychological barrier for the Spanish.
Incredibly, Spain have been eliminated from a major tournament on penalties three times in their history on June 22nd: vs Belgium (1986 World Cup), vs England (Euro 1996), vs South Korea (World Cup 2002).
Here they are in a penalty shootout on June 22nd 2008 once again, against Italy of all opponents, a team who won the World Cup final courtesy of five excellent spot-kicks just two years before.
After Villa’s successful opener, Fabio Grosso strikes an equally convincing penalty to the one that broke French hearts in 2006.
It’s almost impossible to stress the sense of inevitability about this shootout at the time — Italy would win and Spain would lose, because that was the natural order.
And then Casillas steps into the spotlight.
Spain’s captain denies Daniele De Rossi with a brilliant save before bailing out Dani Guiza with a low hand to repel Antonio Di Natale’s tame effort.
Casillas’ heroics mean the opportunity to change Spain’s destiny is presented to a 21-year-old Fabregas.
Arsenal’s talisman sends Buffon the wrong way.
The spell is broken.
Suddenly, Spain are no longer ‘quarts’.
They are no longer penalty bottlers.
They are no longer losers; quite the opposite.
Fabregas’ penalty signalled a positive change in Spain’s identity, one the team harnessed to win three consecutive trophies.
England experienced something similar when they overcame their own shootout hoodoo against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup.
Jordan Pickford and Eric Dier’s double-play exorcised demons and gave the country hope that Gareth Southgate’s men could go all the way.
Except the Three Lions didn’t have the all-round quality to fully induce a paradigm shift.
But Spain, with their legion of technical talents and elite performers, absolutely did.
There would be many more defining moments during Spain’s trophy-laden reign as the world’s undisputed best.
However, all can be traced back to the 2008 quarter-final against Italy in Vienna, Casillas’ saves and Fabregas’ confirmation.
The night belief was born.
NOW READ THE FIRST IN OUR HISTORY LESSONS SERIES: