DONTESK, Ukraine (AP) — Miraculously, even out here amid the belching smokestacks and coal mines on the furthermost eastern fringes of Europe, someone had the foresight to have a copy of Viva Espana cued up, ready to go. Good job, too, because they needed it.
After Cesc Fabregas’ penalty bounced off the post and into the Portuguese net, after he sprinted over to be hugged and squeezed by his deliriously happy Spain teammates, and as Spanish fans screamed their delight into the inky night sky, the famous song started to boom out across the Donbass Arena.
Long live Spain, indeed.
The world and European champions have their place in the European Championship final Sunday. Win that and they will be the first nation ever to win three major soccer tournaments in a row.
And that is all that counts. The Spanish are playing for a place in soccer history. They are playing to bring joy to a country that, in the words of their captain, goalkeeper Iker Casillas, is “in a brutal crisis” – with an economy deep in recession, nearly 1 in 4 Spaniards out of work and banks that need bailing out.
All other considerations should be secondary. The Spanish are not playing to entertain. They are not playing to be pretty for the sake of it. And nor should they. All they need to do is win.
One of the stupidest theories to take hold at Euro 2012 is that the Spanish game – which hinges on them hogging the ball as much as possible – is somehow “boring.”
As it has advanced, this team that contains some of the most skillful players anywhere has not only had to contend with the likes of Italy, France and now Portugal, it also has had to defend its style of play.
And it has played in front of crowds here in Donetsk that either don’t appreciate or don’t understand why Spain plays as it does and how difficult its game of intricate passes is to execute. No other national team plays like the Spanish – and that’s mainly because they couldn’t, even if they tried.
Yet both when Spain dismantled the French in the quarterfinal here and again in Wednesday’s semifinal against the Portuguese, the Spanish were copiously whistled at or, almost worse, played amid a hush so deathly that you could actually hear the players bark instructions to each other on the pitch.
Never before have the Euros come this far east. By hosting them in Poland and Ukraine, UEFA has led new crowds to the waters of fine football. But, it seems, it cannot force them to drink.
It was as though the crowd was bored. Bored of watching Xavi Hernandez, one of the greatest midfielders football as ever seen. Bored of seeing Andres Iniesta, idolized in Spain for his goal that won the 2010 World Cup final. Bored of a collection of players that, come Sunday, might lay claim to being the best national side ever.
Admittedly, Spain labored to beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The score of 0-0 would have disappointed those who came hoping to see a festival of goals. Instead, they got a penalty shootout after 120 minutes of play failed to separate the Iberian neighbors. Spain won that 4-2, with Fabregas firing in the winning final spot-kick.
Still, it was far from boring.
Partly, Spain seems to be suffering from complacency. People get bored of winners. People got bored of Michael Schumacher winning so regularly in Formula One. They got bored of Pete Sampras lifting the trophy at Wimbledon year after year. And now, the Spanish appear to be on the receiving end of that jaded syndrome.
It also is because the Spanish keep the ball to themselves, passing it to each other rather than giving it away carelessly. That is a skill they have honed better than anyone. It is both how the Spanish attack and how they defend. Their opponents tire themselves out running around trying to get the ball back. As a tactic, it’s wonderfully logical, and effective, too. But for Spain’s critics, it is too intricate, even pointlessly so – which is a bit like saying that Pablo Picasso would have been a better painter had he not used so many colors.
In short, it’s disrespectful.
But Spain is dealing with the criticism by continuing to win and with aplomb. Don’t like us? Fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. But we’ll keep on doing our thing. That’s basically how Iniesta dealt with this before this match.
“That’s what makes football great, isn’t it? We can’t all like the same thing, we won’t all agree about everything, and that’s just the difference of opinion that exists. Obviously for us, our game, the way we play it, is what has brought us success and brought us titles, and that’s the way we do it, there’s no other way,” he said.
“Every opinion deserves respect and that might be true,” he added. “But anyway, this is the style that has given us so much success, the style we identify with, and the style that is changing the history of Spanish football for the better. I think that is good enough.”
Good enough? It’s so much more than that. The world and European champion now in another final. Boring or not, that is all that matters.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester