Spain bringing Euro 2008 vibes to 2024 in quest for glory

When Spain began their cycle of winning four major tournaments in 15 years it was at Euro 2008, and back then it looked like things would fall apart before the tournament even began.

Not too dissimilarly from where they are based at Euro 2024, deep in Bavaria’s picturesque Black Forest, La Roja chose a beautiful Tyrolean ski resort not far from Innsbruck for their camp in Austria, who which co-hosted the 2008 edition. But a month before the team began to train, there was no football pitch at all as the facilities had literally been washed away by flashfloods in early May.

Coach Luis Aragones’ team had been booed out of Spain, partly because of the way he’d dropped legendary striker Raul Gonzalez but equally because they produced uninspiring football in their preparation friendlies — particularly a 1-0 win over United States. Then, once in the quaint, quiet Austrian resort, where you could easily see the local perma-glacier, the coach kept having to reprimand defender Sergio Ramos, once very deliberately in public. And the players felt so starved thanks to the regime imposed on them by dietician Jordi Candel — aka “Doctor Hambre” (Dr Hunger) — that they routinely went into the hotel kitchen at night to feed themselves forbidden snacks.

You wouldn’t necessarily call those “perfect tournament-winning conditions,” would you?

What initially links that experience with what’s happening now in Germany is that Euro 2008 was the last time Spain won all three group matches and hit the knockout round looking healthy, mean-eyed and, for some, favourites to win the whole thing. In 2024, too, they’re buried away from the hubbub, the rain has fallen in large proportions and the temperatures are low — but, in one further comparison, there have been no glitches, rows, tension, or any real setbacks.

There’s currently a love-in with the Spanish media who only have two settings: total, unrestrained deification, and flat-out, derogatory aggression.

Here’s where I want to bring in a witness.

Back in 2008 when La Roja began the cycle which would add the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012, then the UEFA Nations League in 2023 (plus numerous tournament wins at youth-team level), Carlos Marchena was keeping Ramos out of the centre-back position and was a starter in the final where Spain beat much-fancied Germany 1-0. In due course, he became the Spanish FA’s director of football.

Just as Spain were knocked out of the 2018 World Cup — to hosts Russia on penalties in the round of 16 — having played turgidly and without any inspiration whatsoever, I was about to interview midfielder Andres Iniesta as he finished his international career. But Marchena sidled up to me and muttered: “Maybe now people will finally understand exactly how hard it was to win tournaments!”

On Monday, I was seated next to Marchena in the Düsseldorf stadium while a smart, athletic, aggressive Albania were just about dispatched 1-0, and he agreed with me that “there’s lots to make this tournament feel a bit like Spain were back in Euro 2008.” We mutually meant: rubbish weather, secluded deep-country training camp, a gutsy, unified, harmonious squad, deep loyalty to the incumbent coach, low expectations from the outside world as Spain approached the tournament, and then a sudden appreciation from the so-called cognoscenti that La Roja — whether they win this thing or not — are to be appreciated for their flair, clear sense of purpose and brand of intelligent football.

There’s an immediate difference, however. One which, so far, ties them a bit more to that 2010 World Cup victory.

Back in 2008, as impressive as Aragones’ team became, they conceded three times while winning a group containing Russia, Sweden and reigning-champions Greece.

Right now, Spain have not only kept three clean sheets in winning Group B, they’ve also only conceded once (a penalty to Italy last summer) in their last five tournament matches. Goalkeeper Unai Simón has saved a penalty [from Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic] while backup David Raya, given some minutes against Albania, made a string of terrific stops.

But the key thing, I’d argue, is that Spain have changed from their ultra-possession style, which was the central reason for them winning their last four matches 1-0 (Portugal, Paraguay, Germany, Netherlands) to lift the 2010 World Cup, yet have still kept a sequence of clean sheets.

There were clues at the start of this tournament, if you hadn’t been watching either their qualifying campaign (25 goals scored; only five conceded) or last summer’s defeats of Italy and Croatia to win the Nations League. Very early on, while the summer rain pounded down on us in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, Rodri told us: “I don’t care about ‘styles,’ the only style which matters to me is winning.”

The Manchester City midfielder is now approaching one defeat for club and country in just under 80 matches. Spain’s left-back against Albania was Alejandro Grimaldo who, by the time Sunday’s round-of-16 match arrives, will have lost once from August 2023 until July 2024 as he’s just helped Bayer Leverkusen to an unbeaten Bundesliga season in Germany. Meanwhile, veteran right-back Dani Carvajal lifted both LaLiga and the Champions League this season for Real Madrid and has suddenly become a goal machine — netting the opener at Wembley against Borussia Dortmund, then again in the 3-0 win over Croatia.

Barcelona midfielder Pedri, the best young player at Euro 2020, is nearly back at his exceptional best, and his club teammate, 16-year-old winger Lamine Yamal, is taking this tournament in his stride — just as he’s done every time he’s ripped up record after record in his ultra-precocious career to date — and is registering a goal or a goal-assist every 80 minutes for Spain.

La Roja were a roller coaster at Euro 2020. Fielding most of the same players, they couldn’t score against Sweden, drew a tepid match with Poland, then hammered Slovakia 5-0 before conceding three against Croatia, winning 5-3, in the round of 16. They only won on penalties against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, but utterly outplayed Italy in the semifinals only to lose on spot kicks. And, for the record, they would have taken England to the cleaners in the final.

This group is older, wiser, hungrier, better and, again for the record, a good bet to be European champions.

Weak spots? Let’s ignore the possibility of injuries which can occur for any team and smash dreams into smithereens.

One or two of the second string — namely Joselu and Ferran Torres — look a little short of match sharpness, having played far too little competitive football recently. Torres was awarded Player of the Match against Albania but that’s a decision which Raya needs to take to arbitration — this habit of automatically giving whoever makes or scores the crucial goal the award is misguided in my view. But hey ho.

Should Spain cope with Sunday’s first knockout round (at time of writing we don’t yet know their opponents, only that it will be a third-place finisher in Group D, E or F, with A no longer possible) then there’s a good bet it would be Germany in the quarterfinals.

Euro 2008 finished with Spain beating Germany 1-0, then the 2010 World Cup was lit up by Spain again beating Germany 1-0 in the semifinals. There could well be enough similarities between those tournaments and this one that the performances and results are duplicated in a Stuttgart on July 5. See you in the semis.