James Lawton: Spain, the greatest? Lucky to get out of their group


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The Independent Online

Spanish football was everything you wanted it to be on Sunday night. It had all those qualities whole and perfectly formed that there had been some reason to fear had, if not disappeared, at least eroded – and who could not go into the night exuberant after seeing something you knew would never be forgotten?

But what you did not have to do was swallow the huge battering of received wisdom that you had just seen the greatest team of all time.

A beautifully orchestrated one expressing itself better, more dynamically, perhaps, than on any other single occasion, certainly.

A team so close they might have been united by family blood as much as extraordinary ambition, yes, of course. But were they really the best of all time? No, you couldn't say that. It was much better to live in the moment, to embrace the time and the spectacle for its own sake.

So, yes, if you love football when a team has enough courage and ability to dare to be great in any day, any year, the cries of "Viva España" surely soar across every border.

The truth is there was nearly as much revisionism in the air as in those days when Kiev was part of the Soviet empire.

It was not enough to give Spain the triumph of the night – and confirmation of their leadership of the world game in four years that have brought two European titles and a World Cup. Not enough to say that in any age of football men like Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, would be among the finest the game had ever seen.

Indeed, it was as though anyone who had dared suggest that Spain arrived at the Olympic Stadium any less than masterful champions-elect had to be hunted down and bombarded with scorn. This is absurd, of course. Spain have dominated an epoch of football and rewarded all those who kept faith in their style and their ability – a number, it has to be suspected, that grew spectacularly after the sublime goals by David Silva and Jordi Alba broke the spirit of an Italy that had beaten Germany so brilliantly.

But the claims for Spain simply went too high. The absurdity has two strands. One is that the team of teams do not reach the apex of their achievement, surpass anything that has happened before, quite so hazardously as the heroes of Sunday.

They do not run the risk of elimination at the group stage, a possibility that was averted only by a brilliant reflex save from Iker Casillas when Croatia were challenging Spain with increasing menace. The indisputable greatest of all time do not move into the final via the lottery of a shoot-out and then go through against Portugal by a margin no wider than half the width of the post which Cesc Fabregas struck while scoring with the decisive penalty.

The other is the Brazil of 1970, the Brazil of Pele, Jairzinho and Gerson, Tostao and Rivelinho, Carlos Alberto and the often forgotten Clodoaldo, a holding player of such fierce strength and deceptive skill that an independent review body might place him at least alongside the splendid Xabi Alonso.

They won arguably the greatest World Cup of all with quite unanswerable brilliance. They won all of their six games and scored 19 goals.

Not, certainly, because we choose to forget Pele, at the heart of a team of stunning balance and invention which had the immense speed and power of Jairzinho, the astonishing intelligence and left foot of Gerson, the acumen of Tostao.

Spain may have become the owners, at least for a while, of today's football, but that should not mean the disinheritance of a nation which won three World Cups in 12 years and created such a sense of futility in their opponents that a European power like Portugal felt obliged to kick Pele out of the 1966 World Cup: the one Brazil didn't win in those 12 years bounded by the boy star in Sweden and the greatest of players he had grown into in Mexico.

None of this is to question the extraordinary nature of Spain's achievement on Sunday. It is right to salute the masters of modern football, though not, we still have to say, at the cost of another kind of greatness, the one which should always have Pele and his associates at its very heart.