The sweep of the narrative arc of this strange tournament meant it would end as it did. It began with some bouts of ugliness, mostly off-field, which besmirched the game itself and ended with an empathic exhibition of beauty and control.
Spain’s era is not over. It may have just begun. Having won three consecutive major tournaments, and with Spanish club teams near-dominant in European competitions, Spain illustrates soccer. Its tactics and thinking will be copied endlessly. And yet it is hard to imagine that its success, let alone its methods, can ever be matched.
What began as an evenly matched game became something else when, 14 minutes in, David Silva assuredly headed in a Cesc Fabregas cross that was so sweetly made and quickly done it looked like a magic trick. Then shortly before half-time, Jordi Alba passed to Xavi Hernandez, who passed back to Alba in a sweeping move for a goal that took your breath away.
This final was more than a good game, more than a showcase of instinct and inspiration.
It was a breathtaking master class in passing, cohesion and passionate desire to score. And that’s just Spain. The 4-0 scoreline hardly reflected Italy’s endeavour and fortitude until a combination of bad luck and Spanish mastery evaporated Italy’s slim chance of coming back. Sixty minutes into the game, Thiago Motta, their third substitute, collapsed with a hamstring injury and Italy was automatically reduced to 10 men against Spain’s 11. The resulting rout against an already tiring Italy was near inevitable.
Spain’s style of possession is viewed by some in the soccer world as a sort of artificial intelligence, as if the team were a high-functioning machine, coolly deft at logic and skill in solving problems but lacking in visceral creativity and the capacity to thrill its audience with the unexpected.
Though widely held, the perverse point of view is blind to the poetry of Spain’s game – the clarity, flexibility, efficiency and cohesiveness, the fluid joy in mastery of the ball, control of the field.
It was an appropriate end to a tournament that had a near-magical meaning beyond its raw stuff of players, teams, goals and penalty kicks. Countries left economically bereft by the euro zone crisis and their governments gone begging like mendicant pilgrims, ceaselessly going to Germany to ask and cadge for aid, asserted themselves as nations once again.
Nations with a noble history in this sport that is nobody’s and everybody’s. Spain’s flair, Italian guile and craft. Greece refusing to give up, the team possibly nudging an election result that followed a day after it defeated Russia.
The headlines of business news stories could have been used, without changing a syllable, in summations of a day or two at this Euro tournament: “Germany worries that Spain and Italy situations are unmanageable.” A struggle for the soul of European soccer was unfolding as a battle for control of Europe’s economic soul played out in crisis meetings held in cities where soccer is the one true religion.
Only a poet, and one taking more liberties with mocking literalness than usual, could have written that Gemany’s unexpected ouster from the Euro tournament would be followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s climb-down on bank rescue policy. And that her policy shift would be caused by worries about pressure on Spain and Italy, who played in the Euro final while Germany did not. The tournament was a welcome, utterly benign expression of European turmoil.
The location, Poland and Ukraine, ungainly harnessed neighbours as co-hosts, contained the seeds of some trouble from the start. And regrettably, for much of the world the tournament’s opening was more about racism and hooliganism than anything beautiful. Poland was more ready than Ukraine, more efficient, less given to gouging. Ukraine had its latent issue that would inevitably erupt – the continued incarceration of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
President Viktor Yanukovich ignored complaints and the boycott by some European Union leaders, just as Ukraine ignored UEFA’s condemnation of outrageously high prices for visiting fans. The fact that Ukraine had a good run in the first round helped quell any internal dissent.
Both countries and the tournament suffered briefly from the taint of racism – remarks hurled at black players – and, in Poland, an eruption of violence. Polish hotheads reacted with venom to supporters of Russia strutting through Warsaw in a march that should never have been allowed.
The first major sporting event held in Eastern Europe since the Moscow Olympics of 1980 was bound to reveal fissures and was ripe to be used for multiple ugly purposes. Yet the ridiculous and heinous basis for racism was surely answered by Mario Balotelli, and the brief outbursts of violence answered by the joyous mood of so many nights in so many cities climaxing in the blithe exuberance in Kiev as Spain established for the foreseeable future its dazzling, delicate technique as the heart and soul of soccer.