KIEV, UKRAINE – The red-rimmed eyes of Andrea Pirlo said it all. The player of the tournament was left clutching a silver medal, standing alone at midfield. Behind him, Iker Casillas was lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy.
"It was no contest," said Italy goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon after the game. "They were simply too good."
He was right. Spain tore apart Italy 4-0 to become the first team ever to defend their European Championship title . Spain also completed a unique treble, becoming the first team since the 1930s to win three majors in a row.
"To win three titles is almost impossible," said Spain manager Vincent del Bosque. "We are talking about a great generation of footballers. They have deep roots, they know how to play and they come from a county where they learn how to play.
"We have done a great job, and this is a great era."
With all due respect to the Uruguay and Italy teams of the 1930s, this accomplishment is unprecedented. Spain are unquestionably the greatest team of any era. They have sandwiched a World Cup in between their continental titles and have set a benchmark that will be hard to equal.
Sunday's emphatic performance will silence Spain's many detractors. Criticized through this tournament as tired, boring and maybe even a bit jaded, Spain displayed verve, vision and the kind of passing flair that many had thought departed this team after the 2010 World Cup.
Spain, as is often the case, were led by the midfield trio of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Xabi Alonso. Xavi set up two of the goals, while Iniesta opened the diagonal lanes up as easy as anyone can pop a tin of cat food. While the Barcelona teammates share most of the accolades, Xabi Alonso won many fans during the tournament, showing why he's considered one of the best two-way midfielders in the game. In this trio's care, Spain looked magisterial. It was a well-earned coronation to say the least.
Yet, credit Italy for trying to plain Spain straight up. They did not bunker or cower at all. Had one or two of their forays hit on the night, they might well have made a game of it. As it stands, with Fernando Torres and Juan Mata scoring in garbage time, the final score was harsh. Italy were reduced to ten men when substitute Thiago Motta popped his hamstring only minutes after entering the field. With a half hour to play and a swarming Spain, it was too big an ask for Cesare Prandelli's squad.
"Spain made history and deservedly so." said Italy's manager Prandelli in a gracious post-match press conference. "They have been playing terrific football for the past few years. So despite the fact that they don't play with a traditional striker, they still cause a hell of a lot of problems."
"We were tired, and that's all we can say, really." added Prandelli. "The only regret we can have is that we didn't have a few more days to rest up before this game. But we came up against a terrific side, the world champions, and when you are down to ten men, the game is over."
Some critics will point to Mario Balotelli and wonder why he wasn't as potent as he had been against Germany. The fact is that Spain took that avenue away. When Balotelli got the ball, he was too far away from goal, or forced to pass back in order to get position. The young man was seen by some to storm off the field in a fit as soon as the whistle blew. In reality, Balotelli had been commanded to provide a doping sample and was corralled by UEFA officials.
The real Balotelli was seen after the game: overcome by emotion, desolate on Kiev's massive field. For a man who has endured so much this tournament - the racist taunts, the incessant probing and the malice of his nation's own media and fans - his reaction should stand as a reminder of how powerful the international team game truly is.
For Spain's players - some wearing testimonials to the late Daniel Jarque on t-shirts as they accepted their prize -- this was nothing short of euphoric. Miraculously, even Torres -- idled for so many games -- ended up collecting the golden boot as the Euros' top scorer.
Cesc Fabregas was giddy after the game, telling a pack of British journalists that Sunday was one of the best days of his life. He then took a pointed smack at the critics: "People who think we are boring, don't understand the game."
The truth is, questions about Spain's value can now end. The comparisons to the great Brazilian sides of Pele's era can be put to rest. The question now might be is if there is anything left for Spain to accomplish. Del Bosque took a stab at it, noting that World Cup qualification lies on the horizon, and half-heartedly mentioned the Confederations Cup - a trophy only minnows take seriously.
Spain have nothing left to prove now. For when they want to, they can play the best soccer the world has ever seen.