KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Certainly the best in the world and maybe the best ever. Definitely not boring.
Spain opened a fresh debate on its place in world football history after sweeping to a majestic 4-0 victory over Italy in the European Championship final on Sunday.
For the third consecutive major tournament, Spain’s outstanding goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas was there at the end to lift the trophy. After Euro 2008 in Vienna and the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, Casillas and Spain completed an unprecedented hat trick for a European nation.
“To win three titles is almost impossible. Congratulations to the players,” said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who followed Luis Aragones as coach after Euro 2008.
And this was the same team that critics had called boring at Euro 2012?
Spain emphatically shut down that discussion, providing the perfect response with the most one-sided final in European Championship history.
No team has ever won a World Cup final by four clear goals, either. Even Pele’s Brazil only managed a three-goal margin a couple of times.
“It was more difficult when people didn’t believe in us,” Spain playmaker Xavi Hernandez said. “The bar was very high, but they are nice challenges.”
Pity poor Italy, who leave Euro 2012 showered with popular acclaim as the most watchable team in some years from a country renowned for defensive tactics.
Playing Spain with 11 players is tough enough. Trying it with 10 for much of the second half is almost impossible.
With all three substitutes used, Thiago Motta was injured and unable to continue after the 64th minute, and an exhausted Italian side limped through to the end.
“This was a great European Championship for us,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. “Really the only regret is that we didn’t have a few extra days to recuperate.
“When we see the lights of the Kiev stadium from the airplane it will be painful, but tomorrow we’ll have a new outlook. We have shown that you can lose with dignity.”
Goals from David Silva and Jordi Alba in the first half gave Spain a convincing lead at the Olympic Stadium. Fernando Torres and fellow substitute Juan Mata scored in the last six minutes to turn victory into a rout.
When the final whistle was blown, Spain’s players rushed to each other and huddled in a circle, jumping and spinning in celebration.
There were more hugs later in the dressing room, this time with Crown Prince Felipe of Spain.
A regal presence was appropriate for a Spanish team whose four-year reign over world football shows little sign of ending.
Spain allowed Italy the majority of first-half possession, yet its trademark quick passing game was lethal when required — as was the finishing in front of goal. The second half was almost entirely one-way traffic.
When called into action, Casillas excelled by keeping Italy’s attack at bay.
“These years have been the best of my life,” said Casillas, who recorded his 10th consecutive clean sheet in tournament knockout matches. “I hope it can be matched in the future but it will be hard.”
Critics of Spain’s style said the world and European champions had become tedious — keeping possession with endless back-and-forth passes to stifle games, not to win them.
But Spain answered by playing its best and slickest football at Euro 2012 when most was at stake.
Along with some sublime football, it also delivered the most comprehensive victory in a European Championship final, beating West Germany’s 3-0 win over the Soviet Union in 1972.
“We won being true to our playing style, and by moving the ball the we way we moved it we knew how to take charge of the match,” Casillas said. “What we do is difficult but we make it look easy.”
Xavi’s Italian counterpart, Andrea Pirlo, failed to orchestrate play as he had done when Germany and England were eliminated from the knockout stages. He looked up with teary red eyes as Spain lifted the trophy.
Sergio Ramos and Xavi had already threatened Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon’s goal when Spain took the lead in the 14th minute.
Andres Iniesta’s incisive forward pass to find Cesc Fabregas was superb. Fabregas drifted behind defender Giorgio Chiellini and surged to the byline, drawing Buffon to his near post. Silva waited eight yards (meters) out to head a crisp chip back from Fabregas into the net.
Spain then increased its lead just four minutes before the break, in a move started by Xavi who had been below his usual high standard at Euro 2012.
“I was lacking that deep, incisive pass, and today I had two,” said the Barcelona midfielder, who put a weighted pass into Alba’s stride as the left-back burst past four Italian defenders to slip his shot past Buffon.
The great Italian ‘keeper also witnessed a master class from his friend Casillas, who was on a winning Spanish side for the 100th time.
Casillas has not conceded a goal in a knockout match since Zinedine Zidane scored for France in a 3-1 win, which knocked Spain out of the 2006 World Cup in the second round.
At 1-0, Casillas twice stretched to tip crossed balls to safety, as Daniele De Rossi and then Mario Balotelli seemed poised to head goalwards. He also saved two shots from Antonio Cassano before Alba’s goal put Spain into its comfort zone.
Italian substitute Antonio Di Natale — who scored the only goal Spain conceded here, in a 1-1 draw to open its Group C campaign — quickly forced Casillas into a double save when released into space by Pirlo’s clever pass.
However, Motta lasted just a few minutes before he appeared to pull his right hamstring and left in obvious pain.
Spain cruised through the second half, to cries of “Ole” from its fans, before inflicting further agony on Italy.
Xavi found Torres who slid his shot past Buffon and inside the far post in the 84th minute. Minutes later, Juan Mata came off the bench like Torres, and took his Chelsea teammate’s pass to score into an Italian goal left unguarded by Buffon yet again. It was his first shot of the tournament, and Spain’s final goal.
“Tonight, there was no contest, they were too superior — so the bitterness at losing this final is only relative,” Buffon said.