Across what would have been Euro 2020, we are running a series on the players who defined each of the European Championships from 1972-2016 – and beyond that, left their imprint on modern football. As we enter the final week, it’s Xavi and Spain’s rise to the top.
It could never enter the pantheon of the worst headlines ever published by the Daily Mail – that bar has been set phenomenally high – but there was a notably cringeworthy effort on January 13, 2009. They had published an article on the FIFA World Player of the Year ceremony at the Zurich Opera House, where Cristiano Ronaldo had scooped the prize. Appearing with Ronaldo in an accompanying picture were the four runners-up – Lionel Messi, Fernando Torres, Kaka and Xavi Hernandez. The headline writers tagged the piece with ‘The best players of the world (and Xavi): Ronaldo crowned king of football’.
Lionel Messi would only sign new Barca deal if Xavi is appointed boss – Paper Round
It looks ridiculous now, given the era of near perfection that Xavi would be central to with Barcelona and Spain. While it might be tempting to cut the headline writers a bit of slack for not being clairvoyant, it should really have dawned on them at the time that Xavi could play a little. Just eight months earlier, a revolution had been televised all over Europe.
Cathartic would be a rather weak word to describe Spain’s victory at the 2008 European Championship. They had won the tournament once before, all the way back in 1964, but with little fanfare. That victory was secured at home, where they beat the USSR 2-1 in the final in Madrid with a late goal from Marcelino. It secured the European title, but not quite as we know it. The European Nations Cup was then in its infancy, a two-legged, unseeded, straight knockout competition that not all teams entered.
Nevertheless, it went in the books. Thereafter, Spain suffered a similar fate to England, who won the World Cup at home two years later. Both were huge nations in terms of stature and reputation, housing club sides that would regularly win European trophies. Yet the national sides were chronic underachievers at international tournaments. Spain had one 14-year stretch where they didn’t even qualify for one, and had a deflating time hosting the 1982 World Cup. A second-round exit there was part of a pattern of disappointments that took in misfortune, self-inflicted wounds, and shattering defeats on penalties. Only a surprise appearance in the final of the 1984 European Championship provided a journey beyond the last eight.
The path Spain walked to end these decades of mediocrity stretched back to the 1970s. While he was a Barcelona player, Johan Cruyff used his considerable influence to suggest that the club follow an academy-based approach that had been so successful at his first club, AFC Ajax. As a result, a converted Catalan farmhouse, La Masia, was first used to house and develop Barcelona’s youth players from outside of the city in 1979….