LONDON (AFP) – With a performance of breath-taking technical mastery in their Euro 2012 final humbling of Italy, Spain proved this year that they are one of the greatest national teams ever to have graced the game.
The 4-0 victory over the Azzurri in Kiev on July 1 made Vicente del Bosque’s side the first team to successfully defend the European crown and the first nation to win three consecutive major international titles.
Beyond the silverware, their stylistic legacy looks set to be remembered with the kind of reverence previously reserved for the Brazilian World Cup winners of 1970 or Rinus Michels’ Netherlands side of 1974.
In the build-up to the final, however, Spain had found themselves assailed by accusations that their intricate passing football had become ‘boring’.
After beating France 2-0 in the last eight, they needed penalties to overcome Iberian rivals Portugal in the semi-finals, and there were claims that their style had become mechanical.
The critics’ pens were poised, but Xavi and player of the tournament Andres Iniesta blew off the cobwebs in the final to inspire a thrilling demolition of Cesare Prandelli’s Italy.
“We’re talking about a great generation of footballers,” said Del Bosque. They have roots, and they know how to play together because they come from a country where they learn to play properly.
“We’ve done a great job. We have some great lads who play abroad, which was impossible before. We didn’t really have players abroad and now foreign clubs want our players, so this is a great era for Spanish football.”
Spanish thoughts quickly turned to the next World Cup, in Brazil in 2014, when the hosts will hope to exorcise the spectres that still linger from their shock loss to Uruguay when they last hosted the tournament in 1950.
FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke had to apologise after suggesting earlier in the year that Brazil needed “a kick up the backside” in order to get ready for the event.
The world governing body now appears satisfied with Brazil’s infrastructural preparations, but ahead of next year’s dry run in the Confederations Cup, there are fears the team itself may not come up to scratch.
Brazil endured a trying year, notably failing to add a long sought-after Olympic gold medal to their trophy collection after being upset by Mexico in the competition final in London in August.
Coach Mano Menezes ultimately paid with his job, but his replacement, 2002 World Cup-winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, faces a challenge to steel the Selecao for a tilt at a sixth world crown.
Despite the glittering talent of Santos striker Neymar, Brazil’s squad is short on international experience, and Scolari knows that excuses for failure will simply not be accepted.
“We have an obligation to win – we are playing at home,” he said.
“Don’t you think our players are aware of the importance of winning the trophy on home soil?
“We are not favourites right now, but we intend to turn ourselves into favourites during the tournament.”
Brazil’s problems were not helped by the sight of Argentina storming to the top of the South American World Cup qualifying table in the host nation’s absence.
Lionel Messi’s 12 goals in nine international games, meanwhile, suggest he has finally found the secret to reproducing his Barcelona form in the colours of his country.
The year began with a memorable underdog tale, as unfancied Zambia defeated the mighty Ivory Coast — Didier Drogba and all — on penalties in Gabon to claim their first ever Africa Cup of Nations title.
There were first-time successes in the continental club tournaments as well, with English giants Chelsea, Corinthians of Brazil and South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai triumphing in Europe, South America and Asia.
Football also began to adjust to the arrival of goal-line technology, with two systems — HawkEye and GoalRef — trialled during December’s Club World Cup in Japan, which saw Corinthians edge Chelsea 1-0 in the final.