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Euro 2012 preview — Spain shoots for soccer immortality

Euro 2012 begins this Friday. It is a 16-team tournament, held every four years, to crown a national soccer team as the champion of Europe. Spain is the defending champion, as well as the reigning World Cup champion (from 2010). If it wins Euro 2012, Spain will become the first team ever to win these two marquis competitions back-to-back-to-back. Spain is favored to do so.

Why is it so difficult to three-peat? I think it’s because star players grow old, success causes players to lose a little bit of their hunger, and sometimes resentments within the squad develop over time. Whatever the reasons, Spain is actually only the third nation to ever repeat in these competitions. The others are France (1998 and 2000) and West Germany (1972 and 1974). The Germans were denied a three-peat by Czechoslavakia, on penalty kicks, in 1976.

Aging shouldn’t be a major problem for Spain. The average age of the Spanish squad is 26.8, the sixth youngest of the 16 teams in the tournament. Many of team’s top stars are about the average age (Pique is 25; Sergio Ramos is 26; David Silva is 26; Iniesta is 28). Spain’s great goal keeper, Casillas, is 31, but that’s not old for the position. The only other core players older than 29 are Xabi Alonso (30) and Xavi (32).

More worrisome than age per se is the fact that two key players will be missing due to injury. One of them is David Villa (30), the team’s best forward. Spain is not hurting for forwards – they have four on the squad (and another for whom there was no room) who probably could waltz into England’s starting 11. But Villa, when healthy, is cut above the rest. He may be missed.

The other injured player will be Carles Puyol (34), the defensive mainstay of both Cup winning teams. Sergio Ramos is expected to move from right back to partner with Pique at the crucial center of the defense. This likely means that Spain will be weaker at two defensive positions than it was in the past two tournaments.

What about Spain’s hunger and team cohesion? The Spanish team is known mostly for its silky skill, but it was hunger and cohesion that put Spain over the top during a difficult World Cup.

The Spanish attack is built on a short-passing game. When Spain is firing on all cylinders, the attack resembles a great hockey power play, even without the one-man advantage. Opponents rely on withstanding the pressure and then hitting Spain on the break.

But even when opponents win the ball, they have difficulty breaking out of their own half against the mass of committed Spanish players who have pushed forward (think again of the hockey power play). This was the key to beating Germany, Spain’s most serious opposition, at the last World Cup. But it requires hunger, commitment, and cohesion.

It’s impossible to gauge how hungry the Spanish players are. But there’s a potentially serious cloud on the cohesion front.

To understand the problem, it’s important to remember that Spain, despite producing marvelous players, was a perennial under-performer for decades. The reason most commonly cited for Spain’s chronic failure is the animosity between the two great Spanish teams – Real Madrid and Barcelona – from which most of the best players came. That animosity had a big political and cultural component that went back at least as far as the Spanish Civil War. It is said to have undermined many a Spanish national soccer squad.

The political dimension of this animosity has diminished in modern Spain, and Real Madrid and Barcelona players, primarily the latter, performed side-by-side on the championship teams of 2008 and 2010 without apparent difficulty.

In the past few years, though, the pure soccer rivalry between the two clubs, always intense, has heated up. First, Barca surpassed Real Madrid, traditionally the top side. Then, RM pushed back by bringing in a fiery, ultra-competitive, and fairly nasty coach (Jose Mourinho). The two teams played multiple times per season – two regularly scheduled league contests, plus various domestic Cup competitions – and in the Mourinho era the matches have been unusually ugly affairs. Teammates from the national squad were sometimes in the middle of the fussing and fighting.

Have things been patched up? It doesn’t seem so. This year, Real Madrid regained the domestic crown, and its players tell the media there is no problem. But Xavi, the great Barcelona midfielder, recently blasted Real Madrid’s players for failing to demonstrate class and respect in victory – for being bad winners, in effect.

The absence of Puyol raises the stakes. Instead of an all Barca pairing in central defense (Puyol and Pique), Spain will probably have a Barca-RM pairing (Pique and Ramos).

Will any of this matter? Who knows? At the end of the day, Germany looks on paper like the only team in the same class as Spain, and Spain is justifiably the tournament favorite – no one else is as likely to win. But picking Spain over the entire field would be a risky proposition.

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