DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 27: Fernando Llorente of Spain hugs team mate Gerard Pique (L) and Sergio Ramos hugs Iker Casillas after victory during the UEFA EURO 2012 semi final match between Portugal and Spain at Donbass Arena on June 27, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Spain are good. Spain are really good. Spain are so good that they may have broken something important.
This is not a piece about whether Spain are boring. There's plenty of those around, all attempting to answer an unanswerable and largely incoherent question that's more about personal taste and emotional reaction than it is about any fundamental truth. If you think Spain are boring, then they are; if you don't, they're not. And if somebody thinks they are, then saying "but they're really good and they win loads and you're a moron with no understanding of football and you suffer from a deluded sense of entitlement" isn't suddenly going to make them interesting. Nor is it going to make you any friends.
But the fact that the argument was happening -- and for all I know continues to do so; following medical advice, I'm not allowed to participate any more -- is interesting. (I think so, anyway.) The fact that so many people on either side of the debate got themselves so wound-up about the whole thing is evidence, I think, that when it comes to this Spain there isn't much else to say. The more important question -- whether they're actually any good -- has been so comprehensively dealt with that, unless we're all willing to break the habit of a lifetime and watch football in silence, there's nothing else to talk about.
Are they any good? Yes. Are they the best team in Europe? Yes. Are they the best team in the world? Yes. The only places for the conversation to go are whether they're the greatest of all time - which brings its own special kind of thundering futility -- and whether we enjoy watching them play. We have to bicker about the subjective experience of watching them, because the answers to the objective questions of their quality are so obvious, and therefore mundane, that it's hard to sustain any kind of dialogue.
"Spain are amazing!"
Plenty of people tipped teams that weren't Spain for Euro 2012. All of them -- and I was one; damn you, France -- did so as much in hope than expectation. It takes a conscious act of will to look beyond a team whose weakest link is Real Madrid's right-back; who have won the last two major tournaments they played in; who haven't conceded a knock-out goal since the late Cretaceous. As Rob Smyth puts it in the Guardian:
Spain's miracle has been drastically to minimise the variables of knockout football and make themselves near to unbeatable
and we all knew that. Yet we still have to talk about something.
Football is often described as a game of opinions, which it isn't. It's a game of events. But the space between those events -- everything that is football but isn't the game itself, if you like -- is filled with opinion, along with nostalgia, hope, despair, and all the other flavours of wittering that we poor desperate lonely folk use to stave off the ever-growing void in our souls. Spain, though, are so predictable, both in their excellence and in the method of that excellence, that their fixtures have become increasingly a given. We know it, they know it, and opponents, quivering behind their double-banked defences, know it too.
And that, perhaps, is what lies behind the "boring" criticism (which is, as Smyth notes, more fairly a question of whether their games are boring, rather than they themselves). It's not just that their style is anaesthetising (though it can be), or that they prioritise control over chaos (though they do). It's that their brilliance, however entrancing, intricate, and admirable the mechanisms, runs counter to the one great advantage of sport-as-entertainment: the uncertainty. We know the plot, and we know the ending. This isn't a criticism of Spain, for they are virtually beyond criticism now. That is both the highest compliment possible, and maybe -- for those who find them curiously lacking in visceral enchantment -- the problem.