James Lawton: Aragones won over lovers of the game with sweet blend of style and discipline
He has a strong idea of what he believes to be right and the nerve to enforce it
Tuesday 01 July 2008
Those who say Spain is not a country but a state of various minds and a series of dramatic gestures must now admit there is nothing intangible about their football team – or the glorious way they have made themselves champions of Europe these last few weeks.
The Cries of Viva Espana may indeed have been only a fleeting celebration of how Basque and Catalan and Spaniard combined to make a brilliant team rather than a cohesive nation, but then the business of old Luis Aragones' boys was never to achieve tribal reconciliation but sweet and winning football.
They did it so well that had they been bullfighters they would have been awarded the ears and the tail of the bull. As it is, they must settle for the gratitude of lovers of the game across the continent they now rule for the first time in 44 years, and they must do it gladly because recent European football history insists it is to receive quite as much as they could ever have hoped for.
When France lifted the World Cup of 1998 and the European Championship of 2000, when players such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira were hailed not just as consummate footballers but healers of the nation's troubled colonial legacy, it didn't stop the streets boiling into riots.
What it did do, though, as the success of Spain has here, was remind us of the beauty of the world's most popular game, and how best it should be organised at the international level.
The cue for a little national introspection is impossible to ignore – just as the conclusions it invites are in danger of being too facile. But then how is it that English football, preening itself so recently over the all-Premier League Champions League shoot-out in Moscow, was required to watch events here like some urchin without the price of a ticket?
We can trot out at least half a dozen of the usual reasons, all of them carrying a degree of validity: inept schoolmaster coaching of the best of our young talent, unlimited foreign imports, inadequate facilities, celebrity culture, a Premier League concerned only with turning a profit, an emphasis on power above skill and not a marriage of these equally vital components in the modern game. Yet still we have not reached the kernel of the Spanish glory.
It is the arrival of leadership, true leadership, and if the new coach of England, Fabio Capello, can truly bring it to bear on the international experience of such as Steve Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, his salary will surely not be seen to be too extravagant.
We had such leadership once, but so long ago it is seen largely as some dusty old relic, something you touch only at the risk of being handed a Zimmer frame or an ear trumpet. Yet if the iron chains of memory remained unbroken in the Ernst Happel stadium here on Sunday, they surely delivered the irrefutable conclusion that the 69-year-old Aragones, the architect of a rare Spanish triumph on the international field, had more than a little in common with the only man ever to win a trophy for England, the World Cup-winning Sir Alf Ramsey.
This was not so much in certain traits of character they shared – obduracy, extraordinary levels of pig-headedness, intolerance of any mores of behaviour outside of their own experience, and an almost complete refusal to accept the legitimacy of any form of criticism – but in certain policies guaranteed to enrage both critics and popular taste.
First, though, there are those similarities of style. When England were about to win the World Cup Ramsey ordered, with great impatience, his trusted Man Friday Harold Shepherdson to "sit down" when he rose from his place on the bench. Ramsey ignored the pleas of his players for him to join in the victory parade. Aragones, at 69 much older than Ramsey was at his moment of supreme triumph, and much less mobile, was unable to avoid being corralled and thrown in the air by his devoted players, but at his moment of victory he had seemed more than anything to be a man who suddenly found himself without anything to do.
The football authorities failed to draw anything more than a hint of apology when he was ruled guilty of uttering a racist slur against one of Europe's most celebrated players, Thierry Henry. Similarly, Ramsey couldn't quite understand what he had done wrong when he was fined, and reviled all across Latin American – where the following World Cup was due, in Mexico, four years later – for calling the players of Argentina "animals".
Ramsey, of course, also hated Scots, a feeling that was no doubt intensified after Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967 and provoked one leading Scottish commentator to announce that the World Cup had suddenly become "meaningless".
But it is the command policies that make it easy to draw a parallel. Aragones was utterly indifferent to the cries for Cesc Fabregas's right to start games after his superb, and on one occasion (against Russia) even sublime, interventions from the bench. Nor did Aragones seem to reflect for a second on the pain he might be inflicting on his superstar striker Fernando Torres, the hero of Sunday night's final against Germany, when he repeatedly pulled him from the field at potentially climactic moments in a game. In the same way, Ramsey was impervious to the pain felt by the great striker Jimmy Greaves, and all his admirers, when he preferred the claims of the young, strong West Ham player Geoff Hurst in the last three games of England's triumphant World Cup.
None of this is to suggest that the secret of winning international football trophies is the appointment of grumpy old and middle-aged men. No, in whatever form they come, it is about football men who can not only impose their will but their standards, classic standards of teamwork and discipline.
You may say, correctly, that a big reason why Spain are the new champions of Europe is that they have a wonderfully balanced squad of strong-minded and extremely able players who represent not the largely power-based values of the Premier League but the much more flowing game of their own La Liga. Yet Spain has rarely lacked virtuoso players, and still less a high quota of skill. So what is the difference between now and all the barren years since the 1964 European title? It is the discipline and vision imposed by a man who knows the game and, with equal certainty, what he stands for.
This does not make Aragones infallible in such matters as his handling of the brilliant Fabregas, no more than it did Ramsey when he opted for Hurst over Greaves, but it does indicate a man who has both a strong idea of what he believes to be right and the nerve to enforce that conclusion.
While we wait to see if Capello is able to impose his own values, and draw out what remains of England's talent, we can only celebrate the meaning of Euro 2008. Euro 2004 was won by a dogged Greek team profiting from a vacuum of ambition and style. This time it has been been carried by a brilliantly gifted squad who took on and beat the old, resilient powers of Italy and Germany, and stopped dead the soaring expression of a Russian team coached by another superb football man, Guus Hiddink.
It was a tournament that took us by surprise and was even more thrilling for that. It reminded us of what can happen when teams play with freedom and confidence, when the common denominator is competitive courage and not skulking caution. We went from one match to the next with the highest of expectations and a surge of the blood. We craved more of Arshavin and Ballack, Fabregas and Xavi, Torres and Iniesta.
We didn't miss England because, frankly, there was nothing to miss, only complacency and self-regard and decades of underachievement and leadership which hadn't had time to kick in, assuming that there will ever again be such a time when it can work in a culture which here and in places like Basle and Innsbruck was suddenly made to seem not only overblown but also rather sad.
Luis Aragones may not be the easiest man to salute but anyone who loves football is obliged to throw him one, just the same. Crusty and ancient, maybe, but he released to victory the best young blood to be found in a championship that will not, and should not, be easily forgotten.
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