Commentary

Spain continues to show the way

Updated: July 5, 2012, 5:09 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

Juan MataLaurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesPlayers such as Juan Mata symbolize Spain's depth in strength and philosophy.

It's not a point of view you'll see being bandied around generally, but Javi Martinez and Juan Mata are, to me, heavily symbolic of Spain's golden footballing era.

During La Roja's last two tournament wins, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship, there have been a total of 1,230 match minutes played, if you ignore time added by the officials at the end of each half. Mata and Martinez have cumulatively played 65 of those minutes. This despite the fact that each won the UEFA U-21 championship with Spain last summer and are already selected to fly to the U.K. for the London Olympics.

Both Mata and Martinez played in UEFA finals this domestic season -- Mata winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Martinez eliminating Manchester United to reach the Europa League final with Athletic Club. With their various club and country commitments, each plays about 11 months of football every year. For example, since Mata turned 18 in 2006, he has played (and won) the UEFA U-19 championship that summer, played the FIFA U-20 World Cup (quarterfinal) in 2007, the Confederations Cup 2009, the World Cup 2010 (winning it), the UEFA European U-21 championship in 2011 and now the senior European championship. If Mata stays healthy, he'll have the Confederations Cup next summer, then the World Cup in 2014 -- effectively 2006 until 2014 with one summer break, in 2008, in which to recuperate properly.

Mata and Martinez are exceptional footballers, and if you were able to snap up the pair on the summer transfer market, you'd be looking at a $70 million total purchase price.

In effect, Martinez and Mata tell the story that even the backup players in this Spain squad are serial winners who are driven into the ground with their playing schedule simply because they are so successful.

If they feel that impact on their body and mind, then imagine how regulars in the starting Spain XI, such as Xavi, 32, or Xabi Alonso, 30, feel.

It is absolutely remarkable that Spain was able to stick to a regular 12-player selection system at Euro 2012, play without its all-time leading scorer (David Villa) and form a new defensive partnership to compensate for the loss of Carles Puyol, but still outscore, outpass and outdefend everyone else. No goals conceded in 10 knockout matches since 2006 -- despite using three different central defensive partnerships (Carlos Marchena-Puyol, Gerard Pique-Puyol, Sergio Ramos-Pique) -- is significant. The system where Spain retains the ball better than other teams has become controversial, mostly because of self-indulgent, mono-browed, open-your-mouth-and-let-any-rubbish-spill-out critics, but it helps account for the fact that Spain concedes far fewer goals than other top teams.

Germany came into Euro 2012, quite fairly, with a reputation for fast, flowing, attractive football. But its cheerleaders sometimes failed to point out that Germany can be defensively naive and that it has one or two defensive players who are a little ponderous. Germany is a force, but it was pummeled by an Italy side which was then destroyed by Spain.

For those who wasted our time by trying to pretend that Spain was "boring" -- think again.

There is a trend where Spain's opposition throws a blanket defense against La Roja. This can lead to matches where Spain probes and turns and recycles the ball, then turns and probes some more, looking for gaps. That's intelligent. Besides, Spain is always, always looking forward to score. If Spain recycles the ball sideways or back, it's simply to begin the march forward again, immediately.

Just think what would have happened with a Spain side playing like this but with David Villa and/or Fernando Torres in top form? Goals would have flowed, Spain would have looked quite unstoppable, and you could imagine the tournament being awarded to La Roja somewhere around the quarterfinals on a footballing technical knockout just to put everyone else out of harm's way.

What troubles me is that a great deal of the "boring" nonsense comes from sectors in the U.K. where they lament the fact that their national teams either don't qualify for tournaments or show an inability to retain the ball and use it creatively once they get it.

Everyone can have a vision of football which differs from that of the Spain setup, but what needs to be understood is that La Roja's formula can be copied and applied whether in the U.S., the U.K. or Uruguay.

Spain didn't always play this brilliant, possession-based game. It used to be known as the side that arrived at tournaments with high hopes and a glass jaw. Let's also remember that the nickname for Spain's national team used to be La Furia Roja, or the Red Fury. They were more physical, they liked to play at a high tempo -- heart over mind.

So there came a stage when the Spanish federation began opting for a possession-based style which would draw on the way in which La Liga's clubs were beginning to produce technically able, tactically astute kids of differing dimensions. The federation wanted each age group in Spain to be trained the same way, or at least using the same basic philosophy, such that there was a natural progression.

If the U-16 team was winning or performing well in tournaments, players would graduate to senior international football and play alongside veterans who would teach them further good habits.

It has been a hugely successful policy. Year after year, Spain wins trophies or medals at all age groups, and the progression looks splendidly healthy. At the top level, Spain has completed a four-year cycle of total domination. We need to leave room for the idea that Brazil in 1962 or 1970, Argentina in 1986 and Germany in 1974 might have had a better individual starting XI. But by 1974, Brazil was a bunch of thuggish, slow-moving shadows of its iconic World Cup triumph four years previously. By 1990, Argentina was petulant, dull and performed one of the worst-ever World Cup finals, against Germany, where watching meant losing the will to live.

National teams tend not to be able to sustain successful four-year eras. Now Spain appears in position to build one that could last six, perhaps eight years.

While Spain is dominating like this, young players -- plus their coaches and parents -- can learn that this is the proper way to play football. Make the ball your friend, keep it, use it well, provide passing options for your teammates, show mental and physical bravery, press to win the ball back, develop technique, develop team spirit and put a prime weight on making the philosophy supreme over the circumstances you find yourself in.

It's a model which is applicable anywhere, not simply dependent on the emergence of a Xavi or Iniesta in your country.

As a footballing nation, Spain wholly believes in this philosophy, and that's why there is a plethora of players such as Mata and Martinez waiting in the wings. While they wait, they gain experience and win club trophies.

Because he has such talent at his disposal, manager Vicente Del Bosque has the armory to keep on winning tough games. At Euro 2012, he continued to show a skill which won him the World Cup. In the final two years ago in South Africa, it was substitute Torres who crossed for substitute Cesc Fabregas to set up Iniesta for the winning goal against the Netherlands.

At Euro 2012, Del Bosque's substitutes have scored or made goals against Ireland, Croatia, France, Portugal and Italy in the final

.

Partly that's his clever judgment, partly it's because Del Bosque has sensationally good replacement players, and partly because the opposition is almost always more tired than Spain at the end of a match, having chased after the ball all night.

I enjoyed the great privilege of being allowed to take a cameraman into the Spain dressing room on Sunday night. The atmosphere was very relaxed and there was a heavy emphasis on family ahead of triumphalism. There were little kids everywhere, wives and girlfriends, and very little singing and dancing. It was the reaction of a group of athletes who knew they'd achieved what they set out to achieve, who knew that there was more to come when David Villa and Torres are back at their peak.

They have worked for it, they deserve it and they deserve our appreciation. This is football as it should be played.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.