James Lawton: Spain can summon will to prove wind is still in their sails

Prepare to see the champions, the Germans and the Dutch show once again how far behind England have fallen on the world stage

We know now there are many different ways of winning European Championships – we only have to ask Denmark and Greece – but it could just be that in Kiev in a few weeks Spain will do as they did in Vienna four years ago.

Though given the tyranny of the years and the loss of their most resolute defender, Carles Puyol, and most consistent striker, David Villa, it is demanding a lot, they may just give us an encore of football that at times might have been set to the music of Mozart.

It raced the pulse and lifted the soul and it sent football lovers of the most assorted blood waltzing off to the nearest cafés.

Spain may not work the same effect on some of the doomsday characters who attach themselves to football in Poland and Ukraine, who strut so menacingly and throw up their stiff-armed salutes, but if anyone can banish the shadows it is surely the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Herdandez.

Certainly, four years ago it was much too much for the promise of the Netherlands and the wiles of Russia's Andrei Arshavin, playing briefly the football of his life, and, finally, a Germany beginning once again to reinvent their knack of playing great tournaments.

What we cannot do, of course, is ask the same question of England as we might Denmark, who came off holiday beaches to replace the old civil-war shattered Yugoslavia and win in 1992, or the Greeks, who hustled Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal into a coma in Lisbon eight years ago. We cannot ask England how you make any kind of impact when the cream of the European game comes to the surface, still less how you win.

When the new manager Roy Hodgson said that his thoughts were already turning to the World Cup in Brazil some said it was defeatism, others merely acknowledgement of the reality of England's current lightweight squad and a tournament record which is nothing so much as a monumental rebuke to the organising of England's international football since the Soviet Union won the first Euro championship in France 52 years ago.

Where do we start? Four years ago, with a forlorn Steve McClaren standing under his brolly at Wembley, is as good as any other point in a story of quite shocking futility. We didn't make it to the party and, if we wanted to know why, Michael Owen gave us a clue when he claimed that not one member of a victorious Croatia team had the talent to make the England line-up. The rest of the story is made up of a dismaying set of statistics. In 13 Euros, only 12 teams have made it to the final and, of course, they do not include the motherland of the game. Germany has three titles, France and Spain two each.

The Netherlands won beautifully in 1988, sweeping aside England 3-1 with the great Marco van Basten supplying a hat-trick of stunning quality before being withdrawn shortly after England sent on Mark Hateley. One of the more barbed comments was that the Dutch plainly believed Hateley didn't deserve to be on the same field as Van Basten.

We could go on, of course. We could revisit Portugal's ambush of Kevin Keegan's England one night in Eindhoven in 2000, and then the team's expulsion in the final group game against Romania. We could also return to Lisbon in 2004 for England packing their bags, and their bouncy castles, after quarter-final defeat.

Hodgson can hardly be lambasted for England's accumulated failure – or his recognition that while most of his rivals have had years of preparation, he has enjoyed just a few days. Yet it is hard to suppress a little rage when you balance the trumpeting of the Premier League as the greatest in football against the quality of the team it has supplied to the new manager.

Nor is it any easier listening to an FA coach talking about England's revolutionary idea of taking away competitive pressures from the under-11s, giving them protection, in the vital formative years, from foaming football fathers and coaches more interested in results than the development of talent. Commendable as this plan is, it has to be noted that the Dutch were doing this 50 years ago with the result of players such as Johan Cruyff and Rudi Krol.

When he was coach of Barça, and providing an important influence in the nurturing of a new Spanish game, Cruyff stood under a Nou Camp stand and talked about the failed vision of English football.

He declared: "If you ask which nation's players were most respected in Europe, and most feared as opponents, I would have to say it was England's. No, their skills have not been cultivated like those of even average European players and only the exceptionally talented can produce those levels of technical ability, but at their best the English can frighten anyone. They are strong and they will fight all day and sometimes you wonder what has happened to these great qualities, how it is that on the international field they so rarely fulfil their potential."

Who knows, the pragmatic Hodgson may draw some benefit from such natural resources – and surely if anyone is qualified to step into Cruyff's English stereotype it is the raw-boned and powerfully revived Andy Carroll.

So yes, of course, we look for the best of our footballers to make some impact on such a feeble record. We hope for a rumbustious Carroll before Wayne Rooney, who in 2004 became the only English player of his generation to make a significant impact on the tournament, serves out his suspension. We hope for the grit of someone like James Milner and the resilience of his team-mate Joe Hart. We hope for an England that can do more than trail away as one of the rejected makeweights, one that can remuster a little pride after the horrors of the South African World Cup.

However, we should not be squeamish about saying the heart and glory and the most effective sinew lie elsewhere.

It is in the effort of the Netherlands to redeem their brutish attempt to mug Spain in Johannesburg two years ago and justify their rank as third favourites.

In the World Cup final they betrayed the best of Dutch football and provoked Cruyff to say that, at least for one night of his life, he was not a Dutchman but a Spaniard. It wasn't treachery, he said, but the statement of someone who loved football, who believed that inside the boundaries of a pitch the only nation to claim his allegiance was the one which tried to play the game beautifully.

It is also the latest attempt of Germany to augment their astonishing record as the team most capable of remaking itself as a serious contender year after year, tournament after tournament. In South Africa they not only beat England but showed them the best of their past and all the possibilities of their future.

Consider the German record: three World Cups, 1954, 1974 and 1990; four times runners-up, 1966, 1982, 1986 and 2002; three Euro titles, 1972, 1980 and 1996; three times runners-up, 1976, 1992 and 2008. It is no mere edge over the achievements of England, it is a searing reproach.

So is the achievement of Spain, though in a different way. If they have merely one World Cup and two Euro titles, they have something that is far more difficult to measure than admire. It is the satisfaction of knowing that through the bitterness of terrible divisions, of immense political pressures, Spain forged an exquisite team. They gathered in all the assets of the football nation, the ferocity of the Basques, the hard brilliance of the Castilians, and the joyful exuberance of the Catalans.

Some suspect that the tide is now ebbing away from the great Spanish galleon; that it may have had its glorious run with the wind billowing in its sails.

However, whatever happens in Eastern Europe we can be sure of one thing. It is that the doubters will not include Iniesta, the little man from La Mancha who played so relentlessly in the last World Cup before delivering the final sword stroke deep into extra time. Once again he will be at the heart of the Spanish crusade. He will fight for every ball and while he is doing it cross every international border.

He will remind us what the game should always be about – and perhaps even make Johan Cruyff a Spaniard for one more night.

So, who will win Euro 2012? Independent writers' predictions

James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer
Winners Germany
Runners-up Spain
England Quarter-finals
Top goalscorer Mario Gomez (Germany)

Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent
Winners Netherlands
Runners-up Spain
England Quarter-finals
Top goalscorer Karim Benzema (France)

Ian Herbert, Football writer
Winners Germany
Runners-up Spain
England Quarter-finals
Top goalscorer Thomas Müller (Germany)

Steve Tongue, Football writer
Winners Germany
Runners-up Spain
England Group stages
Top goalscorer Mario Gomez

Jack Pitt-Brooke, Football writer
Winners Germany
Runners-up Netherlands
England Quarter-finals
Top goalscorer Robert Lewandowski (Poland)

Martin Hardy, Football writer
Winners Spain
Runners-up Netherlands
England Quarter-finals
Top goalscorer Robin van Persie (Netherlands)

Glenn Moore, Football Editor
Winners Germany
Runners-up Netherlands
England Quarter-finals
Top goalscorer Robin van Persie (Netherlands)

Tim Rich, Football writer
Winners Germany
Runners-up France
England Group stages
Top goalscorer Karim Benzema (France)

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