In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital where East meets West, the soccer gods smiled upon a team of Spaniards on Sunday. With a performance that consummated its reign over world f√∫tbol, Spain danced past Italy 4--0 in the final of the European championships, becoming the first team ever to win back-to-back Euro titles, with a World Cup championship in between. The winner's style and verve left no doubt as to the outcome in Kiev and suggested the soccer gods may have been the Spaniards themselves, except for one fleeting human moment under a moonlit sky. When the stadium's blaring victory music stopped, the Spanish players gathered around the trophy and sang in off-key voices that reached the rafters: ¬°Campeones! ¬°Campeones! ¬°Ohhh-é, Ohhh-é, Ohhh-é!
It's good to remind ourselves that La Roja is made up of flesh and blood and bad singing voices, just like the rest of us. Spain's ascension was not preordained. There is no chart with dots and arrows that can teach you the movements of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, of David Silva and Cesc F√†bregas, of Xabi Alonso and Jordi Alba, players whose swooping dribbles and textured passes call to mind the brushstrokes of Impressionist painters. But let there be no doubt: Spain's trophy trinity makes it the most accomplished international team of all time, poised atop a pantheon that includes double champions Brazil (1958 and '62 World Cups), West Germany (1972 Euro and '74 World Cup) and France (1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro), and even Brazil's fabled 1970 World Cup winners.
Sunday's final answered any questions that remained after a tournament in which the Spanish didn't always play at their best and even heard claims that their victories were boring. That judgment was harsh and disrespectful—the blame lay mostly with foes who packed their defenses—but two factors conspired to erase those complaints on Sunday. One, Spain played faster and more vertically than it had earlier in Euro 2012, minimizing its lateral passing, as though the players knew that history would record not just the result but also how the closing statement was delivered. Perhaps more important, Italy too tried to attack, a reflection of the new Azzurri under coach Cesare Prandelli, even if that fearlessness opened up spaces for the Spaniards to exploit.
La Roja's first two goals, which sealed Italy's fate, were a master class in the Spanish tiki-taka style of short passing, constant movement and sharp angles. The buildup to the first strike, which started with goalkeeper Iker Casillas after an aimless Italian long ball, involved 14 passes among nine Spanish players over 37 seconds, traversed both sides of the field and concluded with a rakish cutback from F√†bregas that Silva headed past Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon. The sequence on the second goal was just as special: nine passes among seven players over 26 seconds, capped by a brilliant through-ball from Xavi to Alba, who made a blistering 70-yard run from his left-back position and scored like a natural-born striker.
Those finishes provided the exclamation points, but the greatness of Spain lies just as much in the sheer accretion of details that led up to them, a critical mass of quality that required the precision and ball control Italy lacked. Tiki-taka is a kind of Chinese water torture—the Spanish fans marked each drip-drip-drip pass with a loud ¬°Olé!—but at its best there is a cutting-edge vector moving, with feints and shimmies, inexorably toward the opposing goal. Buffon, a World Cup winner and one of the proudest men in world soccer, summed up Spain's domination afterward: "Because you face an invulnerable force, it's easier to accept defeat."
Four goals also made it easier for those who had criticized Spain before the final. "We aren't here to say our game is the most beautiful of them all," said Iniesta, the tournament's top player. "Everyone has a different opinion. Today we had a great level of play, and we were faithful to our style."
For Spain, the possession game is also a defensive tactic. You can't give up goals if the opponent doesn't have the ball, and sure enough, the defense (anchored by the peerless Casillas and center backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué) allowed just one goal in six games at Euro 2012. In fact, across 10 knockout-round matches dating back to Euro 2008, Spain allowed not a single goal, outscoring teams 14--0.
The question now is whether La Roja can continue its remarkable run at World Cup 2014 in Brazil. The challenge will be significant. No European team has ever won a World Cup staged in the Americas, and South American powers Brazil (with home field advantage), Argentina (with the world's best player, Lionel Messi) and Uruguay (the continent's top team at the moment) all have designs on raising the trophy. So too does Germany, the youngest squad at Euro 2012, which surprisingly fell to Italy in the semifinals. But as Alonso explained, Spain no longer worries about other teams; it sticks to its game plan no matter the opponent. If aging veterans such as Xavi (32), Casillas (31) and Alonso (30) can maintain their elite level for two more years, it would be unwise to call any team other than Spain the favorite in 2014. And keep in mind that the Spanish pipeline continues to produce: The under-23 team is the favorite to win the Olympic gold medal next month.
On Sunday, though, celebrating Spanish fans weren't thinking about the future. In the streets of Kiev, men in full bullfighter costumes waved red-and-yellow flags and danced joyously. Circles of face-painted revelers tossed young women in the air like a human trampoline. One group of Spaniards held aloft a homemade Euro 2012 trophy and chanted, ¬øDónde està Balotelli? ¬øBalotelli, dónde està? (Where is Balotelli?), a reference to the polarizing Italian striker. It was after midnight in Ukraine, and the party looked likely to last awhile.
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JOHN SIBLEY/ACTION IMAGES/ZUMAPRESS.COM (INIESTA)
CAMPEONES Italy had no answer for Iniesta (6) and Spain's revived tiki-taka; afterward the champions (below) celebrated their unprecedented string of titles: back-to-back Euros with a World Cup in between.
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY (NEYMAR)
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (ADRIAN)
JASON CAIRNDUFF/ACTION IMAGES/ZUMAPRESS.COM (STURRIDGE)
BILL BARRETT/ISIPHOTOS.COM (FABIAN)
DARREN STAPLES/REUTERS (SHAQIRI)