How Spain Became Heralded ‘Most Successful International Team of All Time’?

By Kathy Jelisavcic

Every tournament the team is packed full of talent, with huge expectations from both media and fans. Creativity, solid at the back, world-class strikers, as we said – a team full of talent.

Yet they used to disappoint. Every. Single. Time. 

Here’s a riddle: which national team are we talking about? Clue: shockingly, it’s not England. Until 2008, Spain had the trophy for the team that always comes up short, serial underachievers. 

Spain always had players who excelled at club level, but seemingly sent in their low-talent twins when it came to the national team. The low point came on 6 September 2006, when a star-studded team lost to European minnows Northern Ireland. 

Just a few months before that, the team had once again left the World Cup with nothing more than a whimper, losing against a subpar French side, featuring the aging Zinedine Zidane. 

Fast-forward the clock six years and the picture is entirely different. For the younger generation, Spain is known as one of the most successful national teams ever, winning three major tournaments in a row. 

So how did Spain go from perennial losers to dynastic domination? Here’s the story of La Furia Roja. 

Political Infighting   

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Spain’s national team has a reputation for friction, disagreements, and ever-present conflict. Most players came from the top Spanish teams, with Real Madrid and Barcelona providing the core of the side. 

In La Liga, players were mortal enemies. When they got together for the national team, Spain’s stars were often not able to put their league rivalries aside. Fernando Morientes, the legendary Real striker, noted that there always seemed to be a ‘certain distance’ between players. 

These differences still exist today, with Pique’s retirement a few years ago reflecting the problems faced by the national team (he was often jeered by fans due to his views on Catalonia). Rocked by controversy, the team goes to Euro 2020 with little fanfare; betting odds currently place the team at a lowly sixth or seventh favorite. Heading into the Qatar 2022 qualifiers without talisman Sergio Ramos, betting from the region doesn’t expect much either. And, as we can read on ArabianBetting, all eyes will be on Qatar in 2022 when it hosts the first World Cup in the Arabian world where a total of 32 teams will compete for the famous gold trophy. Without their stars, it’s left to see if Spain will get any closer to what it was in the 2010s.

Yet before such political problems came back to haunt the Spanish team, the squad heading into the 2008 tournament knew they had to put their differences aside. And for this glorious spell, they did. Some of this was part of a natural process occurring in football, where shaking hands and trading shirts became more commonplace than flagrant fouls and pure hatred between clubs. 

Aragones had a role to play in this also, adding a dimension of give and take, collaboration, giving players what they needed, rather than ruling with an iron fist. When they arrived in Austria, for example, Joan Capdevila recalled how the team was given a day off to launch training camp. This gave the players a chance to rest following a tough season, building bonds far more valuable than what you can create with a few hours of training. 

Tactical Shortcomings and a New Era

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But perhaps the most problematic element during the 2006 era was the tactical choices made by Aragones and his predecessors. Instead of using the technical superiority of players like Xavi, Spain tended to implement a direct approach. 

It clearly did not work and Aragones knew it. After the Northern Ireland defeat, his days appeared to be numbered. To counter his seemingly inevitable demise, he made one of the most infamous choices in Spanish football history: he dropped Real Madrid legend Raul. 

At 29, Raul was the symbol of the national team. He had 102 caps to his name, a mainstay for a decade, an icon. When news of the end of his national career reached Madrid’s major outlets, journalists reacted as if Aragones had just committed a major war crime. 

Yet Aragones persevered, looking to completely reinvent the Spanish style. With fans and media skeptical, the team made its way to Denmark for a crucial qualifier for the 2008 European Championship. Defeat would have been catastrophic, yet another in a long line of Spanish disappointments. 

In football, success and abject failure live very close together. The 39th minute marked the turn towards a historic and seismic shift in Spanish football history. Sergio Ramos, then a young and clean-shaven full-back, scored Spain’s second goal. Spain was unleashed, with crisp passing and a palpable team spirit driving the team to victory. 

Aragones decided to work with the current, not against it. He saw the team for what it was: small, technical players. Incredible passers of the ball, able to dominate the possession game to perfection. Combined with a drive for ruthless efficiency, Spain began to build the framework for the celebrated team we know about today. 

Ending the Curse 

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The Curse of the Bambino. The SI Cover Jinx. And the quarter-final curse of the Spanish national team. In 2008, Spain was resolute in its desire to break the 44-year spell without major trophies. 

Not that anyone had much confidence. Spain was not predicted to win the tournament, with most bookies putting them at 7-1 odds. Germany, the perennial favorites, was given the best chance by most experts. 

After a smooth start to the tournament, the first real test came against the Italians. Veterans of the late goal, performing under pressure, and winning titles, the winners of the penalty shootouts seemed clear. 

Yet history writes itself in a way we don’t often expect. Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal youngster, with the pressure of a country on his shoulders, scored the final penalty that would send Spain through. Confident, assured. Symbolic of the new Spain. 

The end of the quarter-final curse had finally been signaled, and the team now played without the shackles. Impressive Russia, featuring the majestic Arshavin, was set aside with a simple 3-0 win. 

Against Germany, it seemed to be destiny. Playing against the clutch performers of football, Spain seemed to disregard the weight of the past. Fernando Torres, the talisman of Liverpool FC, would write a new story for Spain, slotting away the decisive 1-0 in the first half. 

This was just the start for the Spanish squad, with historic victories following in 2010 and once again in 2012. Perhaps more famous, the World Cup win certainly meant more, but if we are to analyze how Spain did it, the reasons behind the triumphs, there would be nothing without that crucial period following that devastating loss against Northern Ireland.

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