Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Euro 2012: Spain's next generation 'even better' says Iker Casillas

KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 01: Captain Iker Casillas of Spain lifts the trophy after victory during the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The bad news for the rest of the world's elite international sides was that even as the Spanish players were leaving the Olympic Stadium in Kiev as European champions on Sunday night, they were already discussing the prospect of going to Brazil in 2014 to win their fourth tournament in a row.

For the golden generation of Spanish football, winning has not just become a habit, it has become a fundamental part of the way in which they produce footballers. "I tell you something," Iker Casillas said on Sunday night, "in a couple of years there will be new players and, although it is true that we have a great Under-21s, you have to unite that group and make it work."



For the record, the Spanish Under-21s team are reigning European champions and won six out of six games in qualification for next summer's tournament in Israel. Spain's Under-19s won their European Championship in Romania last summer. Their Under-17s beat their English counterparts 4-0 in Georgia in March. The system is not simply working, it is booming.



But it is not as if the current team are prepared to step away just yet. Xavi will be only 34 by the time 2014 comes around. Casillas will be a mere 33, younger than Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is now. Andres Iniesta will be 32, and is almost exactly two years younger than Steven Gerrard. But there is also a new generation, led by Cesc Fabregas, now 25, pushing behind them.



Fabregas made that point on Sunday night, that a significant part of the team that has won the last two tournaments is still in its early twenties. "Jordi Alba, he's played an amazing tournament, played an amazing game in the final, is only 23 years old, and this is the way we want the other players to keep going," he said.



"We have Sergio Busquets [23], Jordi Alba, myself, Gerard Pique [25]. We are between 23 and 25. It's a really [great] thing to perform at the top level at that age. We were lucky to live a lot of good experiences when we were a young age of 21. Hopefully, that and the success we are having now at 23 and 25 will mean we are stronger for those experiences when we're 27 and 29."



It is a troubling thought for the teams who would seek to challenge Spain in two years' time that so many of them have potentially 10 more years left at the top. Winning the World Cup in Brazil would be a stupendous achievement, not only because it would complete the sequence of four but also because no European team has ever won in South America, although the changing nature of football means that winning the tournament on a different continent is less daunting than it once was.



Fabregas painted a picture of a very ordinary bunch of football superstars who, in his own words, get along well together: "We are normal people. We hang out, we play cards, we play table tennis, go to the cinema together, we are like friends, all the families are together when they come. It's a really, really nice atmosphere.



"It looks like some people are going but the new generation are exactly the same. They are humble, they really want to work hard, they believe in our project and we are very proud."



The question of whether Spain had become a team keeping the ball rather than attacking with it was definitively put to bed in Sunday's final in Kiev. Nevertheless, the idea had some credible supporters, including Arsène Wenger, who said before the game against Italy that they had "betrayed their philosophy" by keeping the ball to defend rather than to be incisive.



When that criticism was put to Fabregas on Sunday night he said he refused to believe that his old Arsenal manager could be so critical. "I think we have shown for years that we have a style of play and we don't pretend to like everybody," Fabregas said. "We believe in what we do and it proves us right. We have players to play this way. We can't play long balls because Iniesta is not strong, I am not strong, [David] Silva is not strong, Xavi is not strong.



"We have to play combinations and this is the way we like to play, the way we enjoy. We are proud of this, not that we won the treble but the way we did it. This group is more than just a team. We are friends. We like to be together. It is something else. It is not a football team – it is more than that."



On the notion that Spain, and their domination of games, had become in some way "boring", Casillas simply said that once standards are set so high, it can be hard to please all the people, all the time:



"I wouldn't say that [the criticisms] have been unfair. But the thing is, this team left the bar so, so high that the second we drop a few centimetres people say we're not the team that we were. What I will say is that I think it is very hard for any Spanish team to do what we have done again. I really hope it happens but it is not easy. I would love to see it. The veterans, we have the responsibility to give way to the ones that come from below."



Casillas and Xavi have come through the Spanish football federation's junior teams together from the age of 16 and have now achieved everything that could be asked of them. Remarkable, when you consider the bitterness of the rivalry between their respective club sides, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Xavi has won the most of the pair, for club and country, and it was he who Fabregas said had defined Spanish football.



"I don't think he'll retire yet," Fabregas said. "He played very well but when he does stop playing for Barcelona and Spain, people will look at football as two periods: there will be a before Xavi and after Xavi."



Spain by numbers



32: Goals scored in winning the Euros twice and the World Cup once.



3,946: Total passes completed by Spain during Euro 2012. The Barcelona midfielder Xavi made the most with 620.



20: Competitive matches since Spain last tasted defeat.



79: Clean sheets for Casillas, who has won 100 of his 137 games to date.



Six Spanish stars for Euro 2016



Many of Spain's stars are young enough to still be around for the defence of the title in France in four years' time. However, a host of youngsters is waiting in the wings. Pete Jenson takes a look at six of the most promising.



1 David de Gea (Age: 19)



With Iker Casillas only 31 there is no imminent goalkeeping crisis, but should his form drop Manchester United's David de Gea is waiting. His excellent distribution fits perfectly with Spain's style.



2 Montoya (23)



Barcelona right-back Martin Montoya so impressed coach Vicente del Bosque that he called him up to the senior squad before he'd even debuted for his club. Barça have earmarked him as Dani Alves's long-term replacement.



3 Isco (24)



Francisco Suarez, known as "Isco", was tipped as a late surprise entry into Del Bosque's squad this summer. The Malaga player will surely benefit from Champions League experience next season.



4 Iker Muniain (19)



Athletic Bilbao's Iker Muniain's emergence will mean we haven't seen the last of the false nine. The position that Cesc Fabregas made his own can be played by the pocket rocket from Pamplona.



5 Thiago Alcantara (21)



When and if Xavi Hernandez finally steps down there should be a place for this talented midfielder.



6 Adrian (24)



Another who was unlucky not to make the cut this time. The Atletico Madrid forward is another short, slight but prolific striker, happy playing through the middle or wide.