Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Embarrassing defeat to Northern Ireland was turning point for Spain

It was at Windsor Park. The night when David Healy scored a hat-trick, the night when Jonny Evans made his international debut and the night when then manager Lawrie Sanchez rocked the Irish FA by telling them he wanted to quit.

Ring any bells? This should help — Northern Ireland 3-2 Spain, September 6, 2006.

The best result for our wee country in many a long year.

Yes, even better than the famous 1-0 victory over England which was celebrated 12 months (minus one day) before.

That match in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008 will forever be regarded as one of the glory nights in the history of the Northern Ireland international side.

It turned out to be extremely important for Spain too, in their magical journey en route to Sunday’s World Cup final against Holland.

In fact, many well respected pundits in Spain will tell you it represented a turning point in the nation’s footballing history.

Spain coach Luis Aragones and his players were hammered back home when they returned from Belfast. The fans were fuming and the media poured scorn on their efforts.

The press called the defeat to Northern Ireland an embarrassment adding that the Spanish players could learn from the passion of Healy and co.

Somehow Aragones survived, although some of the players at the time were probably hoping he would be axed.

Aragones was a complex character, distant with players and officials. There was a distinct lack of togetherness in the ranks of which Northern Ireland gleefully took advantage.

The result and aftermath made Aragones and his underperforming stars take stock. Slowly, but surely they started to rise together as a team.

They became mentally stronger — a character failing that had been the downfall of so many previous sides.

The talent was there.

The team that played against Northern Ireland contained Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and Fernando Torres, with Iniesta on the bench — all of whom could start in Sunday’s clash with the Dutch.

It was just a matter of Aragones being able to unleash it within the network of a team.

He did. It was like a volcano erupting.

Spain only lost one more game in that Euro qualifying campaign and started to produce performances with real spirit and fight.

They went into the Euro 2008 finals in confident mood.

They were winning games, scoring goals and doing it with a real sense of style.

The picture perfect passing game that we now know so well was working like clockwork with the puppeteers from Barcelona, Xavi and Iniesta, pulling the strings.

Villa scored the goals to get Spain into the final, with Torres grabbing the winner against Germany in the decider.

That 1-0 win gave the Spanish their first major championship success in 44 years. They were no longer the great underachievers. They were the best team in Europe.

Aragones left and Vincente del Bosque came in as boss and Spain, free of the freedom of constant failure, became even better going on a stunning 35 match unbeaten run.

They entered the World Cup as favourites and after a wobbly start they have justified the tag and are now destined to become the best team on the planet.

If Spain go in front on Sunday, there’ll be no way back for Holland. Why? Well, in the last 43 matches that Spain have taken a 1-0 lead, they have gone on to win. The last time they broke the deadlock and lost was at Windsor. Spain have come a long way since then.

Belfast Telegraph

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