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All hail the reign of Spain

Published: April 6, 2012 | 8:15 am
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At a time when Spain’s economy is causing global investors to break out into a cold sweat and bark furiously into their phones while wiping caviar off their braces, it is at least comforting that in football terms its stock has never been so high.
Thursday night brought formal confirmation, if any were really needed, that the dominant culture pervading football is that of Spain: for the first time in the history of European football, one country provides five of the eight clubs contesting the semi-finals of the continent’s two cup competitions.
With Barcelona and Real Madrid progressing safely into the final four of the Champions League, and surely destined to meet in the final, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid all did likewise in the Europa League.
Atletico Madrid will now face Valencia in the final four, with Athletic Bilbao taking on Sporting Lisbon to ensure an all-Iberian affair. It is the second time in five years that Spain has had three of the four semi-finalists after Osasuna, Espanyol and Sevilla reached this stage in 2007.
The goal of the night was even scored by a Spaniard, albeit for a German club as the wonderful Raul finished off a flowing Schalke move with a finish of timeless class to claim his 76th strike in European competition.
As Marca put it on Friday morning in a phrase you don’t need a degree in Spanish to decipher: ‘Dominamos el continente’.
Early Doors is not foolish enough to draw any hard and fast conclusions from such a small pool of data – after all, having a 100 per cent strike rate doesn’t make David Nugent England’s greatest ever striker – and only last year three Portuguese sides made the last four of the Europa League. No one then was confidently declaring the onset of a golden age of Portuguese football.
However, spread across two competitions, this occurrence, though possibly coincidental, still provides anecdotal proof for what we all instinctively know: Spanish football is king.
All major countries have these periods: most notably Germany and Netherlands in the 1970s, England in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and now it is the time for Spain to enjoy the peak of this cyclical process.
La Liga possesses indisputably the two best players on the planet and the two best clubs. Its supporting cast – frequently denigrated in the face of such dominance from Barcelona and Madrid – is also of high quality, as the thrilling Basques from Bilbao have demonstrated so memorably in Europe this season.
ED knows England is fond of stubbornly declaring itself to have the best league in the world – Andy Gray and Richard Keys basically made a career of it – yet surely even the most blinkered of little Englanders would concede that is no longer the case.
Not when England provides as many European quarter-finalists as Cyprus.
Not when as team as average as this Manchester United side – torn apart in Europe by Bilbao, lest we forget – can sit atop the Premier League.
That tells you all you need to know about those ‘best league in the world’ claims. They are as empty as ED’s wallet after another trip to the newsagent to stock up on Euro 2012 Panini stickers. (Incidentally, does anyone want to take one of five Wesley Sneijders off ED’s hands?)
This is a more subjective claim, but it also true that Spanish teams play the best football; Barcelona triumph here of course, but Madrid have scored 100 goals in 30 games and Bilbao have also set high aesthetic standards. It is a good time to be a lover of La Liga.
The international arena provides ever more evidence of Spain’s vice-like grip on the game of football, with Vicente del Bosque’s side having a very good chance of becoming the first European country to win three back-to-back major tournaments.
Like Total Football and Catenaccio before it, Spain’s hegemony has also firmly cemented a new concept in football’s cultural lexicon: Tiki-Taka.
The success of Xavi, in particular, in making possession into an art form in itself – allied with a growth in statistical and technological insight – has forever changed the way we view and interpret the game.
As a young kid watching football, ED can’t recall ever being assailed with stats about Bryan Robson’s pass completion percentage, or the number of touches Paul Gascoigne had in the opposition penalty area.
For better or worse, Barcelona and Spain’s brand of football over the past five or so years has resulted in a fetishisation of passing statistics, perhaps to the point of no return.
But in Spain’s rise lie the seeds of decline. Barcelona and Real Madrid’s domestic dominance is damaging to La Liga, sending it down the SPL route, while it was recently revealed that Spanish clubs have allowed their debts to the public purse to swell to as much as £625 million in a form of financial doping that has caused controversy around Europe.
So lap it up Spain, enjoy it while it lasts, and ED will keep scouring the Latvian top flight for signs of a new coming force to depose Xavi and his pals.


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