Five Games That Defined Spain

Let’s celebrate the game’s greatest national team one more time

On Wednesday night, when Spain was eliminated from the World Cup, the most successful generation of players ever assembled probably played its last game together. The nucleus formed by Xavi Hernandez, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, David Villa, and Fernando Torres guided Spain to a World Cup bookended by two European Championships, a feat that no other team has ever achieved.

But instead of wading into the inevitable tide of negativity that follows a shocking and heartbreaking exit, it’s worth remembering the many glorious moments that these heroes produced over the years.

October 13, 2007: The Day Tiki Taka Was Born

Under manager Luis Aragones, Spain lost its first two games, qualifiers for Euro 2008 against Northern Ireland and Sweden. They went into the match against Denmark in Aarhus desperately needing a win. If they lost, it’s very likely Aragones would have been fired.

No one could have foreseen what happened next. Spain won 3–1 with goals from Raul Tamudo and Sergio Ramos. The Ramos goal is seen as the moment that Tiki Taka was born. It was an amazing sequence of touch passing that surgically opened up the Danish defense. It was only then that Luis Aragones realized what kind of style he needed to implement in order to be successful.

The old guard—led by players like Raul Gonzalez, Santi Cañizares, Michel Salgado, and David Albelda—was replaced by players like Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and Fernando Torres.

June 22, 2008: The Day Spain Conquered Its Demons

Italy have always held a mythical place in the Spanish football consciousness. Italy and Spain share many cultural traits yet Spain has always gazed in awed wonder at Italy’s hardened competitive edge when it comes to international football. If they’re so similar to us, why is it that they are so tough under the pressure whereas we always seem to buckle?

Furthermore, Italy knocked Spain out of the quarterfinals of World Cup ’94 in controversial fashion, after Mauro Tassotti elbowed Luis Enrique in the box,breaking his nose, and was not red-carded. Italy at time were the reigning world champions and Spain never seemed to be able to get past the quarterfinal hump.

So when Spain drew Italy in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008, it struck existential fear throughout the country. There was a sense of “here we go again.” When the game dragged on to a penalty shootout that fear was compounded. Spain had plenty of promising teams crash out in penalties: 1986, 1996, 2002. Then Casillas stopped two penalties, and 21-year-old Cesc Fabregas scored the decisive one to send Spain into the semis, but it was this moment that the team believed it could compete with anyone.

June 28, 2008: Wowing the World

Going into the semifinal against Russia, all the talk was about Russian superstar Andrey Arshavin.His performance in the quarterfinal against Holland was already being mentioned as one of the greatest in the history of the tournament. Instead it was Spain that dazzled with flair and skill in a 3–0 win and went on to win the final against Germany.

July 7, 2010: Beating the Germans at Their Own Game

After winning Euro 2008, Luis Aragones stepped down and was replaced by Vicente Del Bosque. Del Bosque was able to lead a smooth transition and brought in fresh blood to the squad with the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodriguez, and Jesus Navas. Spain progressed through the 2010 World Cup with less luster than in Euro 2008, but with a tighter defensive grip. The introduction of Sergio Busquets into the lineup alongside Xabi Alonso formed an almost impenetrable wall. Opposing teams rarely created chances, let alone score.

Spain faced Germany in the semi, a rematch of the Euro 2008 final. The Germans—with their own new generation of players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira—crushed Argentina 4–0 while Spain struggled against Paraguay in the quarters.

The match was controlled almost entirely by Spain’s possession game, but despite creating chance after chance they couldn’t seem to score—until the 73rd minute when Carles Puyol headed in a Xavi corner. The image of Puyol’s hair flying as he heads the ball is one of the most iconic in Spanish soccer history. Spain had just beaten the Germans at their own game.

July 1, 2012: Tiki Taka’s Magnum Opus

Spain struggled through most of Euro 2012. They didn’t have the same sense of dominance that they did in 2010. Spain and Italy were actually in the same group for the 1st round and they actually tied. It was a shocking result at the time. When Vicente Del Bosque announced his lineup for the final, he didn’t include any strikers. Deliberately. It was a master stroke. Spain crushed Italy 4–0 in the most lopsided international tournament final ever.