It was the same story, just with a different cast. As always, a talented and exciting Spain team would stroll into a major tournament with high expectations. But like years previous, they would crash out early, usually in heartbreaking fashion. In Korea/ Japan 2002 it came down to penalties, with a Joaquin miss ushering their exit in the quarterfinals. Fast forward two years to Euro 2004, and the Spanish found themselves making a group stage exit, finishing third behind finalists Portugal and Greece.
The scene this time was Germany 2006. As in years prior, an exciting Spain team strolled in with high expectations. Maybe this would be the year that they would shed their underachieving label. Early on in the tournament, things looked promising. La Roja eased through the group stages, racking up victories against Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Led by a young, flashy forward from Madrid, Spain racked up 8 goals en route to a first place finish in Group H. And for their success, they booked a Round of 16 date with the former world champions, France.
The French had struggled to a second place finish, but there was no doubting Les Bleus technical ability, and Spain found themselves as the underdogs. The game began on a promising note, as Valencia striker David Villa, then relatively unknown outside of Spain, netted a first half penalty to put the Spanish in front. However, the more adept French equalized three minutes from the half with a Franck Ribery goal. In the final 45, the French continued to press and legends Patrick Viera and Zinedine Zidane ended the Spanish dream with second half goals.
It was another tragic finish to a once promising Spanish campaign. But out of the ashes of that defeat one June 27th, 2006 in Hannover rose an angry, red phoenix. That talented and young Spain squad contained a core of players that would go on to become European and World Champions.
Fernando Torres then 22, and David Villa then 24 joint-led Spain in goals with three a piece. Barcelona starlet Xavi Hernandez and his Catalan counterpart, a quiet and occasional club starter named Andres Iniesta occupied the midfield. Also plugging along in the middle of the pitch was a Basque maestro by way of Liverpool, Xabi Alonso. The reserved 24 year old was thrust into the spotlight when he scored Liverpool’s third and tying goal in the 2005 Champions League Final against AC Milan. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the Real Madrid stalwart had already amassed 58 caps by the time of his 25th birthday in 2006. Joining him in the defensive unit were his Real Madrid teammate a 20-year-old Sergio Ramos and the lion of Barcelona, Carles Puyol. Rounding up the Class of 2006 was an unheralded and anarchic teenager named Cesc Fabregas.
Spain did not lack talent. These players would go on to become some of the best in world. Rather Spain at that time lacked identity. As Xabi Alonso mentioned to SI’s Grant Wahl ahead of Spain’s Euro 2012 clash against France “At that moment (in 2006) we had a good team, but the style of the way we wanted to play wasn’t defined at that time. We were much more doubtful about how to approach each game.”
After the elimination at the hands of France, Spain coach Luis Aragones opted to start monopolizing the ball. There was no way that a smaller Spain squad could outmuscle opponents. So instead they decided to out pass them. ”TikiTaka” – a style described as “short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession” became the Spanish mantra.
Spain rode the Tiki Taka to victory at Austria/ Switzerland 2008 with Luis Aragones and at South Africa 2010 with new coach Vicente Del Bosque. At Euro 2012, Spain could become the first team in history to win three major tournaments in a row. Last Saturday, Spain reached the semi finals for the third time in as many tournaments, beating a disorganized and defensive French squad. This was the first time Spain had beat Les Bleus in a major tournament.
The phoenix had finally come full circle. For that victory was forged through the strategy born out of defeat that fateful and heartbreaking afternoon in Hannover six years ago.