La Furia Roja: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

On the slopes of the Cherepanov hill, on the right bank of Dnieper River, there’s a 70,000-capacity edifice overlooking the entire city of Kiev. This is the heartbeat of football in Eastern Europe, but at the turn of the decade, this historic sporting venue became more significant to Spaniards than to Andriy Shevchencko and 45 million Ukrainians.

Two minutes from normal time at the Olympic Stadium, Fernando Torres, after replacing Cesc Fábregas and notching his fifth goal of the tournament, set up Juan Mata for Spain’s fourth on the night –another typical la roja goal, another typical la roja performance. The victims? Cesare Prandelli’s Italy.

At about 11:45pm in Kiev, Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca blew his whistle, bringing the UEFA Euro 2012 finale to a close –Andrea Pirlo in tears, Gigi Buffon and Mario Balotelli visibly heartbroken, looking up to the heavens as though the answer to their defeat was neatly tucked away in the clouds. It wasn’t. The Spanish national football team had been unplayable all night, and the 4-0 humiliation was just another la roja masterclass.

The likes of Germany, Italy, France and Portugal were billed favorites too, but going into Poland/Ukraine as reigning world champions, Vicente Del Bosque’s men had the world at their feet; possessing such flair, team chemistry and technical perfection that made life unbearable for opponents.

This wasn’t just 23 Spaniards competing with other Europeans; this was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona 2.0.

BBC’s Phil McNulty summed it up perfectly when he said:

“In midfield, they have the Barcelona carousel of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, augmented by Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso.”

These high-class technicians were at the peak of their metronomic powers, and even though they eschewed each other on El Clásico basisthe exceptionally blessed midfield maestros became weapons of mass destruction once they pulled on the royal red and blue. Nothing but cold and calculated orchestration.

En route to the grand finale in Kiev, on a disappointing night in Donetsk, France had been eliminated by Del Bosque’s men in the quarter-finals, but for Michel Platini, there were no hard feelings. The UEFA President handed Iker Casillas the trophy – fireworks went off, champagne flowed, the Seleccion Española dynasty had just entered its fourth year.

It was fascinating to behold, but the story was perfect too –how a distinguished Salamanca tactician emerged from the ruins of a disappointing Beşiktaş spell to inspire the most dominant team on the big stage.

Who wrote the Bible? Who wrote the Quran? What do we know of the forces that transform ordinary nations to world beaters?

June 30, 2013. –Estadio do Maracaña, Rio De Janeiro.

Two renowned patrons of the game shook hands as spectators waited on the edge of their seats, for one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the decade.

Both Luis Felipe Scolari, and Vicente Del Bosque were already World Cup winners, and now, they had coached their way to the edge of glory again; proud mustachioed managers leading their nations to FIFA Confederations Cup Grand Finale.

For Brazil, this was familiar territory, but for the World Champions, this was probably their last chance to complete the much coveted triangle of World, Continental and Confederations triumph, the latter being the only missing piece in la roja’s trophy puzzle.

Four years ago in South Africa, Seleção Brasileira were firm favorites when they dispatched the United States 3-2 in Johannesburg. This time, the odds favored Del Bosque’s men; the fourth piece of silverware in five years was more or less guaranteed.

As the final reached its final quarter, Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers produced the first straight red of a FIFA Confederations Cup Final. Moments after Sergio Ramos had sent his spot-kick wide, a rapid Brazil counter put Gerard Piqué in a compromising situation; the Barcelona defender clipped his soon-to-be teammate Neymar on the edge of the box and promptly received his marching orders.

At 3-0, Spain were overwhelmed and overstretched, and while a mesmerizing Santos playmaker was the chief architect of all their problems at the Maracaña, it was the unforgiving Fred who drove the final nail in the heart of la roja’s dreams.

For Scolari and Brazilians, this was business as usual. With three successive Confederations Cup triumphs, it was their competition, but for Italy, and for Germany, and all the others who had suffered agonizing defeats against la furia roja, this was revenge served cold!

Yet, Spain went into the 2014 FIFA World Cup as strong favorites; they had suffered humiliation at Estadio do Maracaña, but they still had arguably the best team on the big stage. Nothing was stopping these defending champions from conquering again, or at least they thought.

France and Italy had suffered it, and while Brazil were spared in 2006, Spain weren’t so lucky this time. The curse of defending champions was thrusted upon la roja, and there was only so much Xabi Alonso’s well tucked penalty could do.

On the subject of legendary tacticians, we dare not mention Louis Van Gaal in the same breath as the immortal Del Bosque, but on that night in Fonte Nova, the Netherlands coach ensured his Flying Dutchmen gave the defending champions a taste of its own medicine. By the time Nicola Rizzoli blew the final whistle, there was nothing left to defend.

Five days later, Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguíz added salt to the wounds in Salvador, inspiring Chile to a 2-0 victory that condemned the Red Fury to third-place in Group B. Jorge Sampaoli’s men advanced, as did Louis Van Gaal’s Oranje army, but for Spain and Australia, it was time to go home.

The 5-1 Dutch hammering sent the three-time European champions on a downward spiral from which they never really recovered; through the valley of the shadow of death, into the dark clouds from which they had emerged to conquer the world.

Two years after a horrifying campaign in Rio, Spain no longer bore the burden of having to defend anything as world champions, but as champions of Europe, Del Bosque’s men still believed they had something to prove in France.

Revenge is best served cold, and just when la furia roja thought they were on course for redemption, the ghosts of Rio resurfaced in Saint-Denis. Antonio Conte’s men put up a spirited performance to exert revenge and send the Spaniards crashing out in the Euro 2016 Round of 16.

At full-time, Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pellé were national heroes, Conte and the Azzurri celebrated the 2-0 win like pardoned convicts, but in simple football language, this was the third successive disappointing campaign for Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain.

Another tournament, another shocking exit, and twenty-four months later in Russia, Iago Aspas’s missed penalty gifted Stanislav Cherchesov’s men a spot in the quarter-finals. Team Russia had written another line in their fairytale, and while this was the end of Fernando Hierro’s brief spell in charge, the last-16 exit also verified the end of an all-conquering dynasty.

Today you are champions; tomorrow you are crashing and burning. Football is a beautiful game, but even to the exceptionally blessed ones from the Iberian Peninsula, she can be a cruel mistress.

From Luis Aragonés, to Vicente Del Bosque, Spain’s dominance at the summit had been fascinating–it was spell-binding while it lasted. Yet, as Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué and David Silva ended their illustrious España careers, the curtains closed on one of the most captivating football stories of the decade, signaling the end of an era the beautiful game may never witness again.

Before 2008, Spain was just Spain, possessing much quality but like England, achieving very little. In the wake of Russia 2018, expectations have dropped, and early tournament exits have become a constant.

On paper, they probably look poorer without the Xavis, Silvas, Villas and Piqués, but as la furia roja seek renaissance under 48-year-old Luis Enrique, is it not from the days of Aragonés and Del Bosque, that the next generation of Iniestas and El Niños will draw inspiration?

By: Andy Mukolo

Photo: Reuters