Xabi Alonso interview, July 2012

A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, July 2012

Miguel Delaney

Kiev

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.

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Night of history: behind the scenes of Spain’s crowning glory in 2012

A version of this originally appeared on The Score, July 2012

ON A BALMY Kiev night, the sun isn’t too far off coming out. There is still, however, absolutely no sign of any of the Spanish players coming out of the Olympic Stadium dressing room.

It’s almost 2am and, understandably, they’re still enjoying their latest landmark victory with old friends. David Villa and Carlos Puyol are in there smiling, Placido Domingo is in there singing. Iker Casillas and Sara Carbonero aren’t kissing – to the disappointment of the Spanish media – but they are hugging.

Typically, the players are in no rush to leave. That unhurried feel, however, suits the whole atmosphere of the night. This isn’t the energetic jubilation of 2008 or the emotional relief of 2010.

There’s a serenity about the celebrations in Kiev, a sense of professional satisfaction. Even completion. They have, after all, made history.

And, if the Spanish players are not quite crying the salt tears of Alexander the Great when he realised there were no more worlds to conquer, they aren’t quite crying tears of joy either.

Half of that, though, might be that it just hasn’t sunk in.

When Cesc Fabregas eventually emerges with a broad smile on his face and a third international medal hanging from his neck, he attempts to explain it.

This feels really amazing, one of the best days of my life. I don’t think we’re ready to see what we have done yet. Three major trophies in a row has never been done before in the history of football. It’s difficult to realise what we have done but, in time, I think we will. It is amazing.

Befitting his style on the pitch, Gerard Pique was even more serene.

“I think the first title gives the most euphoria with the most emotion because it’s the first after so many years… the third you’re more contented. You know it’s there and the job is done.”

A job was certainly done on the Italians. There was a significant gap between the last Italian player leaving and the first Spanish player coming out. Not surprisingly, that Italian was Mario Balotelli. Even less surprisingly, he glared fairly angrily at a journalist who asked for a few words.

To be fair, the moment that the journalist motioned forward, the Italian press officer had shot him a glance as if to say “definitely not tonight”.

What’s more, other than a downbeat Andrea Pirlo walking past without talking but accepting a few handshakes, the Italians were perfectly prepared to stop and lionise the Spanish.

The defeat, after all, was no shame. Italy were mere details on a night when everything that has contributed to this Spanish era of success combined and culminated in one glorious crescendo.

Afterwards, the Spanish players themselves simply seemed in awe of the level of performance the team had reached. Most just puffed out their cheeks and talked of a ‘partidazo’ – an immense display.

They were also in awe of their manager. Every Spanish player interviewed spoke with reverence of Vicente Del Bosque and the calm and intelligence he brought to the team.

Typically, having led the way throughout the tournament, he was the first out from the Spanish dressing room, accompanied by media officer Paloma Antoranz.

Often deadpan in his media press conferences, he was only smiling serenely here and accepting handshakes from every journalist.

There were, after all, no more questions to answer. Not about whether Spain could make history or whether they were making people bored. The champions had been as exhilarating as they had been exceptional.

That last issue, though, was put to a number of the players.

“Those people who think we are boring… in my opinion they don’t understand the game,” said Fabregas.

When it was put to him that his old manager, Arsene Wenger, had been particularly critical, the midfielder/forward did backtrack slightly.

“Everyone sees it the way they want to but I think we played a fantastic game tonight.”

Casillas went a little more in-depth.

“I wouldn’t say 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.”

Pique, meanwhile, was more emphatic.

We firmly believe in this style. We believe in Vicente, the manager, and he is the clearest example of composure and silence. He talks with a lot of credibility. He is the foundation of this success. At the end, you can talk a lot outside. Everyone has an opinion. But, in the end, if you know what you’re at and you know what’s within the camp, they can say what they want.

At the time Pique was saying this, Fernando Llorente walked by, affectionately patted him on the back and said ‘monster’. Similarly, as Andres Iniesta was speaking to a few journalists with the man-of-the-match prize in his hand, a beaming Pepe Reina walked by nodding his head and saying “MVP!” – most valuable player.

These were little moments but also those which shed light on the particular togetherness of this side.

“The group is more than just a team,” Fabregas said. “We are friends. We like to play cards, to be together.

“We are just so normal, we are normal people. We hang out. We play cards. We play table tennis, we go to the cinema together. We are like friends. All the families are together when they come. It’s a really, really nice atmosphere.”

Certainly, the majority of the Spanish players are very down to earth and devoid of pretension. Many are very good and articulate speakers.

None reflect the maturity and cohesion of the squad more than Xavi or Casillas. Two absolute totems on either side of the one of the bitterest club rivalries in football, they come together harmoniously for Spain. Indeed, when relationships between Barcelona and Real Madrid reached their lowest about a year ago, it was Casillas who made the call to Xavi to ease emotions.

“We have thought about it,” Casillas explained in Kiev. “We have had virtually the same footballing career.

We have gone side by side. We have ended up sort of leading our respective teams, me at Madrid and him at Barcelona. Together we have made history for Spain – even though we are not yet conscious of that, I don’t think.

Questions inevitably turned to the future. Can Spain keep it up? Will some of the individual players keep going?

Casillas caught the mood.

“Time goes by for everyone. As a goalkeeper, I can carry on for a bit longer but there are people below us pushing us hard.

“And I tell you something: in a couple of years there will be new players and although it is true that we have a great under-21 team, you have to unite that group and make it work.

“We have got used to winning from a very young age. We won the under-16s, the under-19s, the under-20s. Almost everyone here has been through those categories.

“This is the same as always in terms of keeping the motivation and the desire alive. Four years ago, when we won the Euros, people asked us to win the World Cup. When we won the World Cup, they said we had to win the Euros again. I’ve come out of the dressing room here and people arealready asking for the World Cup again! But the other teams will renew too and it won’t be easy. It’s not as easy as people say.”

Fabregas was a little starker.

“We will try. Everyone thought we would be finished after the World Cup. They thought we might ease off a bit but here we are again, the European Championship again, winners and we made the treble. No one has done that before and we are very proud of it.”

Of course, a quadruple would involve even more dimensions of history: becoming the first European team to win in South America.

“We will try to do,” Fabregas said. “But let me enjoy this first.”

‘This’, of course, being the Henri Delauney trophy. It was in the arms of the last Spanish player to come out, Sergio Ramos.

A player who had a magnificent tournament, he gracefully stood and let journalists in the mixed zone – many of whom were momentarily leaving aside professional obligation – to pose with the silverware.

Then, off he went. The sun was coming out. But there was absolutely no sign of it coming down on this Spanish era of success.

Euro 2012 final report: Spain 4-0 Italy

A version of this originally appeared in the Independent, June 2012

Now, there can be no more questions.

Not only might Spain be the greatest team of all time after winning an astonishing third successful trophy. They may well be the most innovative. Not to mention, at this exalted level, unbeatable.

After four years in which Vicente Del Bosque’s side have had to face a series of teams who have dropped deeper and deeper against them, his solution has been to start with three attacking midfielders up front rather than a nominal striker. He did it again last night.

It has created a lot of debate. It also, however, created the platform for history to be made.

Indeed, this entire coronation effectively served as a culmination of their possession, pressing-based approach.

Most of all, it was anything but boring. It was brilliant.

By the quarter-hour, Spain had made a mockery of so many of the debates.

Indeed, the opening goal was almost the perfect illustration of Del Bosque’s entire rationale with the system.

After a kaleidoscopic passing move, the three rotating attackers combined to produce a goal that was at once exhilaratingly complex but also supremely orthodox.

First, Andres Iniesta played a divine through ball for Cesc Fabregas. He went around the outside while David Silva went around the inside, with the latter then very simply heading in Fabregas’s chip.

This has been the whole point of Del Bosque’s system: for the interchanging attacking midfielders to confuse opposition defenders and thereby create extra space.

The key difference between last night and previous matches, though, was that Spain simply looked so much sharper and so much less fatigued. Unlike the four days between the quarter-final and semi-final in which they did so much needless travelling between north-west Poland and south-east Ukraine, the same time period here set up this performance. In a way that they didn’t against Portugal, all of their passes were coming off.

It wasn’t the only difference though. Italy were pressing much more aggressively – in terms of both position on the pitch and physicality – than pretty much any other side that has played Spain.

It also, however, created much more space for Spain; the kind of space they thrive in and which so many other teams have sought desperately to deny them.

Here, it must be said that Cesare Prandelli took a big risk. Having previously been the most tactically astute manager for the vast majority of this tournament, he was shown exactly why so few teams actually take this risk against the Spanish. They tend to get ripped apart.

There were a few moments, it must be said, when they could perhaps have done with a more orthodox forward: not least on six minutes when Alba crossed from the left with no-one there to meet it.

As a result, once Italy finally got to grips with the game after Spain actually scored the first, they were still in it. And, for a 15-minute spell, they put the Spanish under real pressure.

Then, however, Spain simply stepped up again. And, after a largely indifferent tournament for someone of his quality, so did Xavi.

With Jordi Alba thundering forward, the player that has defined this generation played a ball of equal quality to Iniesta’s for the left-back to slide past Buffon.

Xavi didn’t exactly define this tournament though. And, in the end, neither did Pirlo.

That was Iniesta. When it mattered most, too, he had the biggest influence.

As if to add insult to injury, then, Spain did bring on a forward and he did score. What’s more Fernando Torres became joint top scorer.

It was yet another sign of their utter domination. By then, though, any argument was long over.

***

A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, June 2012

All of the arguments, all of the debates, all of the questions around Spain are now irrelevant – except one. Is this Spanish team now the greatest of all time?

After an exceptional, exhilarating, crowning performance that was anything but boring, it’s very hard to argue otherwise. By finally beating Italy in such a comprehensive manner, they have become the first ever team to win three international trophies in a row.

Not only that, there is the very strong possibility that, at this very top level, they might well be unbeatable.

Certainly, this entire game served as the culmination of their possession and pressing-based system.

This is what Vicente Del Bosque intended. This was the point of it all. This was perfection.

The build-up to this final, and indeed Spain’s entire tournament, had been framed by the ongoing debate over Del Bosque’s 4-3-3-0 formation.

As expected, however, he did the same last night. For the third time at Euro 2012 and the second time against Italy, he featured Cesc Fabregas in the false-nine role.

By the quarter-hour, though, Spain had made an absolute mockery of so much of the debate.

Indeed, the opening goal was almost the perfect illustration of Del Bosque’s entire rationale.

After a kaleidoscopic passing move, the three rotating attackers combined to produce a goal that was at once exquisitely complex but also brilliantly orthodox.

First, Andres Iniesta played a divine through ball for Cesc Fabregas. He went around the outside while David Silva went around the inside, with the latter then very simply heading in Fabregas’s chip. Brilliant.

One of the main reasons that Spain were able to pull that off in such a magnificent manner, however, was because they simply looked so much sharper and so much less fatigued. Unlike in the match against Portugal, all of their touches and passes were coming off.

That, of course, was because, this time, they didn’t spend the four days between games needlessly travelling from the south-east of Ukraine to the north-east of Poland.

It told.

To be fair, the scoreline could have even be more telling by then. For a few isolated moments, you could see the reasons whySpain’s formation has caused so much debate.

After just 50 seconds, for example, Iniesta innovatively flicked through for Fabregas. The midfielder, however, didn’t quite have the acceleration to reach it. Had it been a more direct, pacier frontman – such as Fernando Torres – on instead, an opportunity might have been forced.

There was a similar moment on six minutes when Jordi Alba burst down the left. He crossed… but no-one was there to finish as Silva was on the far end of the box. Here, had it been a player with more of a striker’s instinct – such as Fernando Llorente – the opening goal might have come much earlier.

As it was, it meant that Italy were at the very least still in the match by the time they finally appeared to get to grips with it onceSpain had gone ahead. And, for a good 20 minutes, they produced some good football to make life a lot more uncomfortable for the Spanish.

With Andrea Pirlo – typically – getting things going and making the Spanish work from every set-piece, Iker Casillas and his backline had to be fully focused.

Sergio Ramos certainly seemed fully focused on Mario Balotelli. The Real Madrid centre-half reacted to an abrasive early challenge from the Italian with a series of assured challenges of his own.

But, just as it looked like Italy might force a proper opening, Spain stepped up again.

Even more importantly, after a largely indifferent tournament, Xavi stepped up. Just like the Spanish team as a whole, he was saving his best for last.

With Alba thundering up the flank, the player who absolutely defines this generation hit a pass every bit as exquisite as Iniesta’s for the left-back to easily slide home.

Again, this wasn’t boring. It was simply brilliant.

A clear factor in this, it must be said, was that Cesare Prandelli effectively took a risk to try and go and win this game rather than just contain Spain. Having held Del Bosque’s side with a more conservative approach in the opening game, Italy were much more cavalier in the final.

And, while it created a few problems for Spain – not least when the lively Antonio Di Natale came on – it also gave them the space they thrive in. This was another difference between this match and the performances that were perceived as dull in the past.

Spain had a big enough canvas. As did Iniesta.

With a performance like that, he should probably steal the player-of-the-tournament award from Pirlo.

And, as if to add insult to injury, then, Spain did bring on a forward in Fernando Torres and he did score to become joint top scorer.

It was yet another sign of their utter domination. So was Torres’s assist for Juan Mata to make it a perfect four.

By then, though, all of the arguments were long over.