A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, July 2012
So how does it feel to make history? How does it feel to truly stand apart?
Few have done it. Fewer still can put it into fitting words.
Of footballers, though, the articulate and pensive Xabi Alonso is probably best equipped.
And, given the raucous performance he had just helped produce against Italy on Sunday night in Kiev, he was in surprisingly reflective mood just a few hours after the final. That sense of serenity, however, was in-keeping with the atmosphere around the Spanish team. Whereas 2008 and 2010 were marked by energetic jubilation and emotional relief, respectively, the feeling here was one of professional satisfaction; deliverance.
“It will take a long time for us to realise and appreciate what we have done but what this group has achieved is historic,” Alonsosaid. “It’s fantastic.
“It was close to being the perfect game. We put in a massive performance and controlled the match perfectly. We’re very, very contented.”
Control and contentment. They haven’t always gone together in Euro 2012, at least as far as Spain’s attempt to dominate games and neutrals’ desire to be excited by them have gone.
It was difficult, however, not to be exhilarated by Sunday night’s display. Spain served the perfect riposte to so many of the debates that dominated this tournament. Not, Alonso says, that the team were even thinking about them – at least in any serious way.
“I laughed at a lot of what I read.
“I knew what was being written in this country or the other country… I laughed a lot. A lot.
“We were secure and calm, confident in what we were doing and that we were doing things the right way. I thought a lot of [the criticism] was demagogic.
How, then, does he square the flat performance against the Portuguese with the fantastic one in the final?
“I think we played a great game against Portugal but it was difficult to beat them. The goal didn’t go in. That’s not the same as [the final] when we went in at half-time 2-0 up and that changes things. You have a greater sense of control.”
The clear sense among the Spanish camp is that, precisely because the team had been on the brink of history, there were simply unrealistic expectations.
“I think people don’t value how hard it is, how difficult it is to win games and to impose yourself on teams the way that we do. I think we have reached a very good level.
“And every game is hard to win. It was hard against Croatia and against Portugal and [the final] was, in principle, going to be the same. But we played so that well it might not have looked that way.
“It’s not that we win just like that, lying back on a sun lounger. We put a lot into it”
Whether Alonso will directly admit it or not, there was an undeniable improvement from the Portugal game in the intensity and sharpness of the Spanish performance: a focused energy.
Many teams freeze in a final and feel the pressure. Spain only stepped up.
“Well… we trusted in ourselves but we also had to give our all in every game, we had to be focused and have a competitive tension.
“But, mentally, we are confident and, because we know each other so well, we have created an integration that is fundamental. It is fundamental that you have things that you know how to do without having to make a huge mental effort. That is a huge advantage that we have over other teams.
“People say a lot of things. But on the pitch we have proven ourselves. Words can make a difference, they can influence people. But the facts are indisputable and they’re there for all to see. So there’s nothing else that we have to say.
“We had to produce a great European Championship if we were going to win it, and I think we have done that. We have only conceded one goal… After this game, lots of people will think: ‘oh, why did I write that?’, don’t you think?”
Alonso and his teammates, meanwhile, have written history.