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Defending World Cup champion Spain became the first country to win a second consecutive European Championship, humbling a shorthanded Italy, 4-0, in the 2012 final in Kiev.
The triumph made Spain, which won its first Euro crown in 1964, the second three-time winner of Europe’s biggest prize after West Germany/Germany (1972, 1980, 1996).
David Silva got the rout underway in the 14th minute when he headed in Cesc Fabrigas’ short cross. Jordi Alba latched onto a pass by Xavi to beat Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon four minutes before halftime to put the match out of reach.
Substitute Fernando Torres, who also scored against Germany in Spain’s 1-0 victory in the 2008 final, scored in the 84th minute, and Juan Mata, set up by Torres, applied the finishing touch at 88 minutes. Italy lost Thiago Motta to injury in the 62nd minute after coach Cesare Prandelli had used his three substitutions–the last of them Motta in the 57th–and appeared nearly helpless on the Torres and Mata goals. [July 1]
Comment: Spain’s dominating performance put a much-needed shine on a tournament that for the most part was downright dull. But those quick to brand this team as the best of all time need to take a deep breath.
Is Spain the best? Those who disagree might start with the West German team that won the 1972 European Championship and the ’74 World Cup. That team also lost the ’76 Euro final to Czechoslovakia on penalty kicks before winning its second Euro four years later. Others would point to Brazil’s Pele-led 1970 World Cup champs. And so on.
So are the Spaniards the best ever over an extended period? Various media reports branded coach Vicente del Bosque’s ball-possession magicians as the first to win three consecutive major titles. ESPN, which televised Euro 2012, was among them. But the first was Uruguay, winners of the 1924 Olympics in Paris and the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam–back when Olympic soccer was the sport’s de facto world championship. The Uruguayans so dazzled the Continent on those occasions that they fueled the drive to create the World Cup in 1930, which that year was hosted and won by Uruguay. De facto or no, that was three world titles in a row over a half-dozen years.
Too long ago, when soccer wasn’t quite the global game it is today? Then for hardware in the modern era, go with another South American team, Brazil, just a decade ago. Except for an interruption by Colombia at the 2001 Copa America, the Brazilians, three years removed from their win at USA ’94, won the next two South American championships, in 1997 and ’99, finished second at the 1998 World Cup to host France, then won their fifth world championship at Korea/Japan 2002, followed by another Copa in 2004.
But then, when it comes to soccer and other matters, we live in a Eurocentric world.
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The U.S. National Team upset Italy, 1-0, in a friendly at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris to post its first victory over the Italians in 78 years. Clint Dempsey rolled a shot from the top of the penalty area past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the 55th minute and the Americans, behind some stout defending, held on for their fourth consecutive win under new coach Juergen Klinsman. [February 29]
Comment I: The triumph was described in many quarters as historic, and given the fact that the U.S. went into the match with a 0-7-3 record against the Azzurri and had been out-scored, 32-4, over those 10 matches, the feat was indeed historic. Italian commentators no doubt shrugged it off as an aberration. Dempsey’s goal, they no doubt pointed out, came against the run of play–decidedly. Italy out-shot the U.S., 19-4, and would have had more had the pesky Sebastian Giovinco and mates not been flagged for offside nine times (to the USA’s zero), mostly on hopeful balls lofted over the U.S. back line. Italy also had the edge in corner kicks, 8-2, and Buffon was forced to make only one save to U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard’s seven, which included a clutch kick-save in the fourth minute. This also wasn’t a full-strength Italian squad; neither could it be said of the U.S., but while the Americans remain sorely lacking in depth, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli could trot out a starting lineup heavy on players from Juventus, at the moment Serie A’s second-place club. Moreover, all would agree that a better look at reality came in the teams’ last meeting, at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a competitive match in which Italy took the U.S. to school in a 3-1 win that left the Americans’ hopes in that tournament on life support.
So was this upset truly meaningful? If so, the U.S. in recent years has enough such moments to fill a history book, starting with the 2-0 win over Mexico in the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals, and followed on a semi-regular basis by England 2-0 at U.S. Cup ’93, Colombia 2-1 at the 1994 World Cup, Argentina 3-0 at the 1995 Copa America, Brazil 1-0 at the 1998 Gold Cup semifinals, Germany 2-0 at the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, Portugal 3-2 at the 2002 World Cup, and the biggest of all, World-Cup-champion-to-be Spain 2-0 at the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals.
The best way to describe what happened in Genoa is to suggest that the U.S. further cemented its reputation as a team capable of anything at anytime, an erratic opponent who’s a no-win proposition for the world powers. Why should they relish facing an opponent they’re expected to beat when, on the odd day, they’ll fall victim to grit, fitness and just enough skill to get the job done? At the same time, this giant killer can’t get past the mid-level teams on a consistent basis, as it demonstrated in its 1-0 loss to Belgium in Brussels in September, Klinsmann’s third match in charge.
What may have been most noteworthy about Italy 0, U.S. 1 is that Klinsmann stuck his neck out and agreed to have the game scheduled at all. He rolled the dice in Genoa and won with a conservative 4-5-1. His 4-4-2 may come and go, depending on the opposition and the circumstances, but it’s clear that he intends, as he’s said, to pull the Americans out of their “comfort zone” and tap into the bravura and blue-collar characteristics that made the U.S. job so appealing to the German in the first place. In sum, Klinsmann with nothing to lose, the fellow hired to be the anti-Bob Bradley.
Comment II: Klinsmann’s boldness crossed a line when he substituted a spent Jozy Altidore with Terrence Boyd. a striker who has yet to work his way from the Borussia Dortmund reserves into the club’s first team. Boyd was clearly a fish out of water, and it can be gently said that he was lucky not to be shown a yellow card for a high foot a few minutes into his 11-minute cameo. A 21-year-old kid making his debut against Italy in a one-goal game? There are limits.
Comment III: It’s been nearly 20 years since Nike took over for adidas as the national teams’ outfitter, and it still hasn’t gotten it right. The same company that has repeatedly ruined Brazil’s classic jersey–and those of the countless other national teams and prominent clubs it has come to sponsor–dressed the U.S. for its Italy match in something that could best be described as a bad version of Arsenal in navy blue. In fact, it simply looked like the Americans had their sleeves ripped off, revealing their white long underwear. Fortunately, the U.S. played better than it looked, sartorially speaking.
Comment IV: On one day, the U.S. National Women’s Team routed Denmark, 5-0, in Portugal in its Algarve Cup opener; the U.S. National Under-23 Team blanked Mexico’s U-23s, 2-0, in Dallas in an Olympic qualifying tune-up; and the U.S. National Team shocked Italy, 1-0, in a friendly in Genoa. Oh, and the Mexican National Team bowed to Colombia, 2-0, in a friendly in Miami.
It won’t take away the sting of a day like June 25 last year, when Mexico thumped the U.S., 4-2, at the CONCACAF Gold Cup final … but for American fans, it doesn’t hurt.