International FootballSoccer

Euro 2008 flashback: When Spain began their reign

June 18, 2021August 22nd, 2023

Ryan Baldi looks back at Spain’s impressive Euro 2008 campaign.

Before they became one of the most dominant forces ever seen in international football, sandwiching a 2010 World Cup win between back-to-back European Championship triumphs, Spain were one of the game’s great underachievers.

Heading into the 2008 European Championship, La Roja’s last and only international honour was 44 years in the past, a Euro crown won on home soil when the tournament comprised just four teams.

Despite the country’s biggest clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Valencia – all being regular contenders on the continental club stage, and despite a slew of gifted stars produced in every generation, falling short at international level had become expected of Spain.

At Euro 2008, that changed.

Barcelona had won the Champions League two years earlier, thanks largely to the spellbinding flair of Ronaldinho but also with the passing philosophy handed down by Johan Cruyff as the foundation of Frank Rijkaard’s side.

Spain manager Luis Aragones, a 69-year-old former La Liga winner as player and coach with Atletico Madrid, had always been a devotee of ball-on-the-floor football. He could see the potential for success in Barca’s Cruyffian ideals and he leant into them, giving the diminutive Camp Nou pair of Xavi and Andres Iniesta the focal roles they enjoyed at club level.

“I was responsible for all the dirty work – I had more defensive responsibilities,” Spain’s Brazil-born defensive midfielder Marcos Senna told FourFourTwo of his role at Euro 2008. “Iniesta, Xavi and David Silva were in front of me, so my task wasn’t too hard because we basically always had possession! We didn’t suffer a lot. You’d pass the ball to them and no matter the situation, they’d find the perfect solution. Football seems simple with guys like that.”

As well as such a talent-rich midfield, Spain had Iker Casillas in goal, Carles Puyol anchoring the defence and a frontline made up of Fernando Torres’ sheer speed and athleticism and the nous and expert finishing of Valencia’s David Villa. They travelled to the tournament in Austria and Switzerland fearing no one.

Despite such talent it had looked for a while as though Spain wouldn’t even make it to the finals, after two defeats – to Northern Ireland and Sweden – in their first three qualification games. They rallied soon after, though, and asserted their dominance to finish top of their qualification group with eight wins from their last nine matches.

And Spain carried that momentum into the tournament. A Villa hat-trick helped them to a 4-1 win over Russia in their opening game, followed by victories over Sweden and reigning champions Greece to top Group D with maximum points.

The quarter-finals brought Spain’s toughest test of the summer and a match-up that would be reprised in the competition’s final four years later. Spain, in what was fast becoming their customary style, enjoyed the lion’s share of possession against Italy and outshot their opponents by 31 efforts to eight. Yet the deadlock couldn’t be broken and it was left to Casillas’ flying saves from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale in a penalty shootout to secure a place in the last four.

“I said we didn’t suffer much, but that match against Italy was the exception,” remembered Senna. “We weren’t in charge like the other games, and we could have lost. When it comes to the shootout in such a crucial competition, you feel nervous to have that responsibility.”

Next up: a Russia rematch. The vibrant Russian side of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrey Arshavin were one of the tournament’s surprise packages and most entertaining sides, having swatted aside Holland 3-1 in the quarters. But Spain were dominant, with goals from Xavi, Danny Guiza and Villa earning a 3-0 stroll to a final against Germany.

Villa’s four goals at the tournament would be enough to secure him the Golden Boot, but a thigh injury sustained against Russia meant he would not play in the final. Torres would lead the line alone.

After a slightly shaky start as the Spanish players betrayed a hint of nervousness in the showpiece event, they soon settled into a rhythm and scored what would be the game’s only goal after half an hour. Xavi’s pass was just close enough to Philipp Lahm to encourage the Germany defender that he could nick it. That, though, was exactly as Xavi had planned it. Instead, Torres raced clear and lifted the ball over Jens Lehmann and into the German net.

And Spain could have won by a more comfortable margin. Torres saw a headed effort bounce wide after hitting the post, Iniesta had a shot cleared off the line by Christoph Metzelder and Senna missed a good opportunity from close range in the final minutes.

It was a momentous victory for Spanish football – the long-overdue fulfilment of the talent they reliably produced. But Aragones’ side were only appreciated fully years later, after Vicente del Bosque had replaced the former Atletico Madrid boss as manager and led La Roja to a first World Cup and another European Championship in 2010 and 2012 respectively, and Pep Guardiola had taken a similar pass-heavy style to greater heights with many of the same players in his Barcelona team.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Spain side of 2008 laid the foundation for the international dominance they enjoyed over the next half a decade. Xavi was named Euro 2008’s Player of the Tournament but only came fifth in the race for that year’s Ballon d’Or. While the Barca maestro now makes any list of the greatest midfielders of all time, he was still considered an outsider among the best players in the world at the time.

Although the legacy of Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph would only be truly appreciated in the fullness of time, there was no question they were Europe’s best that summer.

“We played a perfect tournament and the victory was deserved,” Senna said. “I doubt anyone would disagree.”

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