WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Spain went into the 2012 European Championship as the best football team in the world. It emerged more than three weeks later brandishing the trophy as if to say ''we told you so.''
No team in history had ever completed the hat trick of two continental championships and a World Cup in a row, and nobody had ever retained a European crown. Even for such a gifted team, it was surely asking too much.
What's more, critics had been queuing up at Euro 2012 to label the defending champions as boring. Predictions that teams featuring more direct tactics like Germany, and then Italy, would win the title soon followed.
They were all wrong.
A devastating show of possession football and finishing guided Spain to a 4-0 victory over Italy on Sunday at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. Helped by its opponent being reduced to 10 men by injury after 64 minutes, the Spanish were just too good for a brave, but exhausted Italy side to handle.
After weeks of football, the final brought the tournament full circle for the teams involved.
Spain started and finished Euro 2012 by playing Italy, though the tepid 1-1 draw on June 10 was nothing compared to Sunday's spectacular finish amid the goals, confetti and bottles of sparkling wine.
Spain's Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and captain Iker Casillas were among the outstanding players of the tournament. Italy's best player, Andrea Pirlo, also deserves to be among that elite.
Mario Balotelli produced arguably the best individual performance of Euro 2012 with two superb goals in Italy's 2-1 victory over an impressive Germany side in the semifinals.
The argument would doubtless come from Portugal fans, who would point to the biggest global celebrity of the tournament, Cristiano Ronaldo. The winger's two goals in a 2-1 comeback victory over the Netherlands put the swagger back into his team as they sealed a place in the quarterfinals.
Like every tournament, Euro 2012 provided its fair share of entertainment, wonder and shame.
England certainly helped on the entertainment side. Its 3-2 victory over Sweden in the group stage gave spectators value for money - as did the drama of its penalty shootout defeat by Italy. It's a longstanding curse for England teams, though this one can have few complaints after being totally outclassed for two hours.
Germany also provided plenty of sparkle, notably in its 4-2 win against a determined Greece side in the quarterfinals. The match was billed as a metaphor for the eurozone crisis in which Germany-backed austerity measures have made life hard for many Greeks. It wasn't any easier for the 11 on the pitch in Gdansk either.
Ukraine's 2-1 victory over Sweden was another memorable game, bringing together two of European football's great players. The spoils went to 35-year-old Ukraine captain and national hero Andriy Shevchenko for two clinical strikes, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic tapped in at the other end.
Ibrahimovic later lit up the championship with a spectacular volley in Sweden's 2-0 over France.
The French had a typical tournament. They played some nice football, had a bust-up among themselves, fell out with their national press and bowed out in the quarterfinals. At least they lost to eventual winner Spain.
Sadly, both the tournament's co-hosts - Poland and Ukraine - were knocked out at the group stage, taking with them the atmosphere created by their passionate supporters.
There was far worse, though, at Euro 2012.
The crude taunting of the tournament's leading black players, Balotelli and Czech defender Theodor Gebre Selassie cast a shadow over the championship.
Though UEFA duly took action, the incidents underlined the fact that European football still has a long way to go to rid itself of its racist minority.
Clashes involving Russia supporters in Poland meanwhile revived a historical enmity.
Hopefully, though, the abiding memories will be positive ones.
Italy emerged from yet another domestic footballing scandal to show that it is still a great country in the sport. Ireland, arguably the worst team at Euro 2012, had the best fans. Their spine-tingling rendition of the Fields of Athenry, will not be forgotten by anyone who heard it.
Spain rose to the occasion of the final by producing their best football of the tournament, when it counted most.
But then, that's what true champions do.