Ahead of the Euros this summer, we’ve reflected on Spain’s historic triumph as they became the first side to win three successive major international tournaments in 2012.
The reigning European and world champions headed to Poland and Ukraine as the feared favourites, aiming to extend their success to an unprecedented scale.
Still basking in a squad that comprised of some of the world’s most naturally gifted players, Vicente del Bosque’s men had a target on their backs following their 2010 World Cup success in South Africa.
To jog your memory, it was a year where Chelsea defied the odds to win the Champions League for the first time in their history, Rihanna and Calvin Harris were at the top of the charts with “We Found Love” and Felix Baumgartner jumped from 128,097ft to smash the world record for the highest skydive.
In the summer, all eyes were on Spain’s golden generation to see if they could sustain their dominance.
Drawn in Group C alongside Italy, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland, Spain’s opposition in the group stage would test their credentials as tournament favourites.
Unless you were Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland, it was not exactly ‘Group of Death’ material and yet when they opposing Italy and Croatia, the Spaniards would be asked to unlock defences without an obvious source of goals.
Spain were without two pivotal members of their World Cup winning squad with David Villa, who was their top scorer in the previous two major tournaments, not recovering in time from a broken leg while the marvellous Carles Puyol was forced to withdraw through injury.
That meant Gerard Pique would be partnered by Sergio Ramos, with interest peaking as to whether the pair would be able to settle their territorial differences for the benefit of the nation.
Fernando Torres had been recalled to the 23-man squad for the tournament at the expense of Roberto Soldado, despite the latter scoring 27 goals for Valencia, dwarfing the tally of 11 from the Chelsea frontman in the 2011/12 season.
So who would lead the line for Del Bosque? Against Italy in Gdansk, it was Cesc Fabregas that was picked ahead of Torres and Alvaro Negredo to fulfil the starring role in Spain’s attack.
The decision was vindicated when Fabregas applied a first-time finish to an incisive Spain move, levelling the match three minutes after Antonio Di Natale’s opener to ensure the holders avoided defeat in their opening match.
After an enthralling encounter with the Italians, Spain were comprehensive victors four days later as they put Ireland to the sword in Gdansk.
Torres rewarded Del Bosque’s show of faith with a goal in each half and Spain’s win was further complimented with strikes from Fabregas and David Silva.
Completing just shy of a 1,000 passes, it was a demonstration of their brutal precision in possession, the ability to tire and break down opposition through their relentless cycle of passing and movement.
The Spaniard’s enjoyed similar territorial dominance against Croatia but found Slaven Bilic’s side a far tougher nut to crack.
They looked set to relinquish top spot in Group A after failing to find a breakthrough for 87 minutes but Spain eventually broke Croatia’s resolve. What proved to be a constant theme throughout the tournament, up stepped the magical Andres Iniesta. Holding his run to beat the offside trap, he latched onto Fabregas’ chipped pass before feeding it to Jesus Navas before an empty net.
And with that result, Spain avoided a quarter-final tie with England and instead were met by France.
It was a first competitive meeting between the two sides since France beat Spain in the Round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup.
Spain were out for vengeance. France were desperate to end their reign.
Short, sharp and purposeful on the ball, La Roja looked capable of unpicking the French lock whenever they pleased. They were never a side to ferociously boot the door down but instead prise it open with a series of mesmerising passing patterns and movement.
Laurent Blanc’s compact French defence were unable to withstand their charm and Del Bosque’s men were keen to make a statement in the latter stages of the competition.
In an encounter that was littered with an array of match-winning talents, one unsuspecting individual elegantly came to the fore.
On his 100th appearance, Xabi Alonso took centre stage. He mustered the breakthrough with an emphatic first half header and rounded off the victory with a penalty to book Spain’s place in the semi-finals.
Awaiting them in the semis was Portugal, whose progression to this stage of the competition was carved by a man you may have heard of: Cristiano Ronaldo.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner spared Portuguese blushes with a match-winning brace against the Netherlands to prevent a group stage exit. Ronaldo scored again in the quarter-final, breaching the Czech Republic’s resolve with a textbook header.
All the talk before the match was of Ronaldo inspiring Portugal to glory and Spain were all too aware of the threat he posed. Neutralising him would be key to ensuring their passage.
What ensued was a tentative, nervous affair in which clear-cut chances were few and far between. This wasn’t a match where Spain could flaunt their tiki-taka brand but one where they needed to be practical.
Del Bosque’s decision to start Negredo and opt for physicality backfired and Spain, unaccustomed to being on the back foot, were struggling to get a grip of the game. Even when Fabregas was introduced in the faux centre-forward role, La Roja’s slick and smooth passing game was lacking against the constant energy of the Portuguese.
With the clock ticking and extra-time looming, Portugal launched forward with one last attack. Raul Meireles and to his left lurked an unmarked Ronaldo. Was this the moment?
Much to Spain’s fortune, it wasn’t. Ronaldo skewed his effort high and wide. Extra-time beckoned.
And this is where the reigning champions began to assert themselves. Iniesta forced Rui Patricio into a save from point-blank range, Navas saw an effort stopped and the Spaniards were ultimately foiled in front of goal.
Penalties were then on the menu and if this was where Spain’s reign was to end, it would have been a cruel conclusion.
Up first in the shootout was Alonso… Saved.
Alonso looked to Iker Casillas to bail him out. His Real Madrid team-mate duly did so, diving to his right to parry Joao Moutinho’s penalty.
Five penalties were subsequently dispatched, including an exquisite clipped effort from Sergio Ramos, before Bruno Alves nervously stepped forward.
The defender rattled the woodwork, leaving Fabregas with the responsibility of securing his sides’ passage to the final in Kyiv and he converted with aplomb.
Ronaldo, Portugal’s unused fifth penalty taker, was left distraught while Spain were now 90 minutes away from immortality.
“They’re boring,” stated critics when discussing Spain’s progression at Euro 2012.
“It will be a bad advertisement for football,” Mark Lawrenson claimed if Spain went on to win the tournament.
Despite being on the brink of a historic third consecutive major tournament success, La Roja were on the receiving end of criticism from the fun police for their possessive and controlling style.
You could see their perspective. Spain averaged 1.8 goals at Euro 2012 and half of their tally came in one game against the Republic of Ireland.
Ultimately, Spain’s sophisticated philosophy was centred on keeping the ball away from the opposition. If the other team can’t get the ball, they can’t score.
And if they’re minimising the number of chances an opponent can create through their ball-retention, then they only tended to need one goal to score. It was evident in their World Cup triumph, winning all four of their knockout matches 1-0.
So in the build-up to their date with destiny against Italy in Kyiv, Xavi and Iniesta were dismissing any scrutiny of their style. They certainly didn’t have anything to prove but deep down, the comments may have added further fuel to the fire in their bellies.
And Spain’s performance in the final was anything but boring.
The world got to witness La Roja at their breathtaking best. The constant interchanges, untraceable movement and precise passes consistently put Italy in a state of indecision.
All the attention focused on Andrea Pirlo ahead of the match but Iniesta eclipsed him, seizing the spotlight and dictating proceedings in harmony with his accomplice Xavi.
The pair combined to devastating effect to create the first goal. Receiving the ball from Xavi, Iniesta spotted the run of Fabregas and threaded a divine pass in-behind Giorgio Chiellini. Fabregas had it all to do but still managed to pull a sharp pass back to where David Silva was lurking and the Manchester City ace glanced his header into the top corner.
Spain then doubled their advantage minutes prior to half-time. Jordi Alba, scampering forward from deep, had the Italians retreating incessantly before Xavi inserted a pass into his path and the left-back made no mistake as he slotted the ball underneath Gianluigi Buffon.
Italy clung on dearly to stay in the contest but their hopes were dashed when Thiago Motta, their third substitute, was stretchered off and Cesare Prandelli’s side were forced to play the final half hour with 10 men.
Xavi seized the initiative, teasing his opponents by manipulating possession before raising the tempo to rouse an explosive finish.
First he dispossessed Pirlo to set-up Torres, with the forward becoming the first player to score in consecutive European Championship finals.
Xavi was the architect again minutes later, taking advantage of weary Italian legs to combine with Torres and set Juan Mata free, who rounded off a comprehensive triumph.
No nation had ever won three successive major tournaments and no nation had ever retained the Euros title. The likelihood of us seeing that feat repeated is slim.
A collective of exquisite talents and elite mentalities, Del Bosque had all the tools to forge a powerhouse and that’s exactly what he achieved. His unconventional methods have reshaped the tactical elements of international football.
Perennial underachievers, Spain thrusted themselves to the top of the football pyramid and the 2008-2012 team will go down in history as the most dominant international side in history.
To Win Outright