Emphatic champions in 2012, the Spain side of 2008-12 is being heralded as one of the finest national teams of all time. And not without good cause, because the statistics will show that the Spanish are indeed, the best team Europe has produced in modern times. What’s more, Spain can stake a genuine claim to being one of the greatest international sides of all time. It’s difficult to compare apples with pears, as they say, and you are never going to get Ferenc Puskas, Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Xavi on the same pitch, or indeed the same competition, but if you take the facts, Spain take some beating.
Spain’s record in competitive matches (i.e. European Championship and World Cup, including qualifying games) is quite astonishing. In 49 games, they have won 42 and have lost just three times. In the process, they have scored 109 times, conceding 25. It’s a brilliant record. And the team of 2008-2012 can be justifiably be tagged just that. Seven players have been involved in the three competitions in that period and six have played in two. That core of seven players comprises Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas, Iniesta and Torres.
The West Germany side of 1972-76 is a contender, although they failed to make it a hat-trick of trophies when they lost to Czechoslavakia on penalties in the 1976 European Championship final. Their win rate was 66.67% and they lost just one game in 27. This was a team that included Maier, Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer, Hoeness and Mueller.
The Dutch team of 1974-78 that won nothing but friends had an outstanding record, winning 64.7% of its games. It is one of football’s tragedies that this group of very talented players was not rewarded for their pioneering total football. How sad that Johann Cruyff, the player of the World Cup in 1974, was not a winner.
In some ways there are parallels with the France team of 1996-2000, but the French won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later. They had a win rate of 63.15% and lost just two of their 38 games. Players like Deschamps, Zidane, Vieria, Barthez, Desailly and Henry became household names not just in France, but also around Europe.
Who else in Europe? The Hungary of Puskas. They went on a 35-match unbeaten run in the early 1950s but the matches that really count were the Olympics of 1952 and the World Cup of 1954. Hungary won the gold in 1952, winning all six matches (goals 20-2). Two years on, they marched to the final in Berne, thrashing their eventual opponents West Germany on the way. But it all came unstuck in the final and they were beaten 3-2. Nobody could quite believe it and Hungarian football was never the same again after the revolution. This was a different age and most of Hungary’s games were friendlies, so it is difficult to compare them to the all-conquering Spain side of the 21st century. Likewise, the Italian team of the 1930s, which amounted to two separate line-ups although they lifted two World Cups.
So as far as Europe is concerned, Spain are the best ever. How long can they continue to dominate? The test will come when they have to replace their current stock. Judging by their bench strength, it should not be too difficult to maintain the momentum. The next World Cup is in Brazil. Spain will certainly represent the best bet from the old world.