Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Spain's Euro 2012 team made the game beautiful again

MADRID, SPAIN - JULY 02: Two Spain supporters take a photograph of themselves draped in the national flag as they prepare to congratulate their team's players on their return to Madrid following their victory in Euro 2012 football championships on July 2, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. Spain beat Italy 4-0 in the UEFA EURO 2012 final match in Kiev, Ukraine, on July 1, 2012. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Life mostly disappoints. A series of expectations build and the reality fizzles like a damp Catherine Wheel. Nowhere is this more apparent than in sport.

So hyped to inflate a multi-trillion pound toxic bubble of preening vanity, mediocrity and a surrounding industry of chancers and bluffers, it has us, the consumer, forever deflated.

When we were young, we ran, kicked, jumped and threw with pure joy and that memory has us doomed to feel disconnected to those who make their preposterously well-rewarded living doing the same thing in the 21st century.

This is a time, remember, when sulky, brattish behaviour is defined as character and to be able to string three sentences together makes you the sporting equivalent of Dickens.

And on top of this teetering pile of self-love sits football. In yer face, over-promoted and largely desperate to watch, it is populated by half-witted man-boys whose reward for swapping their brains for a decent set of lungs is a garage full of baby Bentleys.

And yet. What keeps us living in hope is magic. The magic we felt when we scored our first goal, the recurring image of the blurred golden shirt of Carlos Alberto hitting that screamer for Brazil to win the 1970 World Cup, watching our own sons from the touchline. They are few and far between, these times we can feel proud to say we were there.

And so to Sunday, July 1, 2012, and for the diehards among us, who hardly remember Mexico 1970, the long wait is over.

In footballing terms, we have witnessed what might be the closest to perfection without the intervention of the gods it is possible to see.

In the first 45 minutes of the Euro 2012 cup final, Spain gave us what we had all but given up hoping for. Football of unbridled joy, of exquisite beauty of a sort that transcends the brutish normality and will keep us returning to the game for the next 30 years, hoping for a glimpse of it again.

Patterns of the most delicious intricacy were woven across the pitch, red-shirted players with love in their hearts selflessly placed the ball at the feet of their teammates, passes were laser-guided into spaces no one knew existed, exhilarating goals were scored after slow, slow, quick bamboozling rhythms were danced from one end of the pitch to the other.

Did we see the best team ever on Sunday night? Of course we did and just as our fathers told us about Pele and Rivelino and Jairzinho we can now speak of Xavi and Iniesta and Alba. And we will have smiles on our faces when we do so.

At its heart football is a simple game. The ball is round. It goes where you aim it. If you pass it to someone with the same colour shirt as you, you might get it back. The man in a different colour shirt can't get it.

If you subsume yourself to the team, divest yourself of ego, yet be so supremely confident of the skills you have been taught, you will be even more successful. It took Spain to remind us of this elementary reasoning.

In doing so, they blew away the bluster and dim-witted pomposity of the sport on these isles. That shape and discipline and work rate and the odd great strike out of calamity are what makes the heart race. Nonsense. That is for the yeomen. Football has been reclaimed by the artist and left us trailing behind, puffing our red cheeks like Wayne Rooney trying to close down Pirlo. When the Premiership returns, that jalopy of the overblown and never-weres will probably divert us again from the true spirit of the game. Until two years hence, that is, when we will ritually throw our hands in the air in despair as our meat-and-potatoes ball-chasers come home early again.

On Sunday night, we saw the words beautiful game reclaimed from the irony-pedlars and, in that 90 minutes, we reconnected, became child-like again, remembering the simple pleasures of sport.

Here's the first of four goals Spain scored past the good, but not good enough Italians three nights ago. Alba to Arbeloa to Silva to Iniesta to Silva to Xavi to Iniesta to Fabregas to Silva, goal. Reads like poetry to me.

Mike Gilson is editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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