WARSAW, POLAND – Spain heads to Kyiv Sunday with an eye to make history. The defending European and World Champions have not been exciting enough for many of the neutrals at this European Championship , but it's hard to argue with success: they are in their third consecutive major final and have a chance to complete a remarkable treble, winning back to back Euros with a World Cup in between.
Although watching the Spaniards on the field can sometimes feel more like watching a chess match than a soccer game, they remain the best team playing the game at the moment. And what has been lost in all the ardor and criticism is the fact that until 2008 Spanish football was the butt of jokes, the whipping boy for the European elite: to put it simply, Spain was the nation which produced football talent but not winners.
By erasing decades of failure under pressure, the current Spanish side - which really was assembled for the 2006 World Cup - has completely transformed our view of the country's sports. It hasn't hurt that Spanish tennis, cycling and basketball have also been world class simultaneously.
Until their triumph in the 2008 Euros, Spain had not won a thing since 1964. In those days, the European Championship was a pleasant, small event and provincialism still ruled the football world. Real Madrid had already emerged as a dominant club, but as with today's Barclays Premier League , many of its stars weren't available for the national team.
Although there were Spanish stars dotted between that time and 2008, their teams were more renowned for their unluckiness. The team was seen to falter or simply lack willpower when crunch time arrived. As the global international game grew in stature, Spain went the other direction, suffering through a long period in the wilderness.
The real angst began in 1982 when Spain hosted the World Cup. They were handed an apparently easy start, but stumbled out of the gate - held to a 1-1 draw by Honduras, a team most of the European pundits knew little or nothing about (how times change). Although a win over Yugoslavia followed, there was a humiliating 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland followed by elimination in the next round after a loss to West Germany and a draw with England.
The Spanish team was nowhere near the final when Dino Zoff and his Italians celebrated that world title.
Two years later came another defeat, this time against a rival that had historically suffered from many of the same ills. That was in the 1984 European final in France where the hosts prevailed in a 2-0 title game that included some less-than-spectacular goalkeeping from Luis Arconada in Spain's net.
France, even with Michel Platini in his prime anchoring the midfield, didn't get a springboard to world titles from that either, but the defeat seemed to sentence Spain to a series of ever-increasing disappointments.
The 1980s and into the early 90s was an era when the nation had plenty of stars: Jose Antonio Camacho, Andoni Goikoetxea and Miguel Angel Nadal were dominating players. Michel, Pep Guardiola and Fernando Hierro headline a list of standouts who never raised a major international trophy. This was also the spell when Emilio Butragueno and Jose Maria Bakero were among the best strikers in the game. Raul Gonzalez, still an evergreen forward, came a bit later, but the storyline remained the same: a series of missed European and World Cup chances.
In 1986, for example, Butragueno's four-goal outburst in a 5-1 demolition of Denmark had Spain looking like a team who could truly compete for the championship. In their next outing all that magic disappeared as Spain was held 1-1 by Belgium, to be eliminated on penalty kicks.
In 1990, a talented Spanish team was KO'ed in the second round of Italy's World Cup by Yugoslavia. The 1992 Spanish Olympic team did win gold in one of the last Olympiads that was not fully professional on the field, but the momentum still did not create a 1994 World Cup wave. Spain fell in that tournament in a memorable, controversial quarterfinal against Italy and it appeared that the country really was snake-bit.
Adding to that sense was a penalty kick loss to England - that's right, England actually has won a shoot-out - in the 1996 Euros ahead of another flop in France in 1998. Spain entered that World Cup off an unbeaten qualifying campaign, then promptly swooned against Nigeria, drew with Paraguay and went home when a win over Bulgaria wasn't enough.
Perhaps the most frustrating loss of all came in South Korea in 2002. Facing the host nation in a memorable quarterfinal, Spain had two goals mysteriously disallowed. The Koreans won in a penalty kick tie-breaker that sent the country into a 24-hour celebration and the Spanish to the airport.
Finally, although there was no success at the 2004 Euros (out at the group stage) or the 2006 World Cup (beaten by France in the second round), the seeds of this Spanish team were being sown. Along with the rise of Barcelona to European royalty and the return of Real Madrid to the elite, La Liga became a hot house for emerging talent.
The stars stayed on home soil for the most part, with Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas even coming back after stints in England. Fernando Torres is the only member of the Class of 2006 that still plays outside of Spain.
How much credit should be given to Barcelona and Real Madrid, how much to coaches like Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque - and even Javier Clemente who should be remembered for honing fine sides that did not quite get over the final hurdle - can be argued. What cannot be disputed is the fact that the players who were beaten in Germany in 2006 overcame that loss to build the greatest era in the history of Spanish football.
That 2008 World Cup roster included Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Torres, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Cesc and David Sanchez Villa. All of them, save the injured Puyol and Villa, will be in Kyiv Sunday seeking a kind of achievement that would have been unbelievable even 15 years ago.
The losers have become winners, such effective winners that they now are accused of winning too often and in a "boring" fashion to boot.
Such is the high price of success.