Casillas was very sharp during the entire Euro 2008. His performance in the penalty series against Italy will be remembered for the ages. Winning the Euro championship puts him in a category with Spain’s most popular people. His name will now be mentioned with the likes of president Rodríguez Zapatero, famous opera singer Plácido Domingo, two-time Formula 1 auto-racing champion Fernando Alonso, four-time Roland Garros winner and 2008 Wimbledon champ Rafa Nadal, and actors Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem, who recently won an Academy Award for best supporting actor.
There is no precedent for what Spain accomplished in the Euro 2008 held in Austria and Switzerland. While Spain has shined at the club level, never has the national squad reached the pinnacle. Spain not only claimed the continent’s title but, also climbed to the top of FIFA’s world rankings for the first time. In the 15 years of the world’s soccer federation standings, only five other teams have held the distinction of best team in the planet: Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France and Germany.
Yes, Spain did win the European championship 44 years ago and reached the final contest 20 years ago (versus French powerhouse led by current UEFA president Michael Platini), but neither display compared with the sheer domination shown this year in eliminating top national squads, such as Italy and Germany.
In the World Cup, Spain has not reached the final four since the 1950 tournament held in Brazil. Since then, 14 World Cups have been played, and either by a coin flip, a goal disallowed by mistake, the penalties nightmare or a star named Roberto Baggio, who was too much for "The Reds" at Foxborough, Spain never surpassed the quarterfinal round.
This time, though, everything is different. A team led by Casillas, FC Barcelona’s midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who was voted Most Valuable Player of Euro 2008, and defender Carlos Marchena, is certainly capable of winning gold. The three were the pivotal part of a squad that claimed the first Spanish Sub-20 World championship, beating Japan, 4-0, in 1999 Cup final contest held in Nigeria.
In fact, it was this group, along with defenders Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevilla, that defeated Genaro Gatusso’s Italian squad in Sydney eight years ago en route to the final game of the 2000 Olympic Games; a match which they lost to the Cameroon Lions, led by Eto’o, in penalty shootouts.
To Spanish fútbol historians, the date of June 22 represents a day of dread; a day in which many of quarterfinal matches were lost in penalty series. Spain fell to Belgium in the 1986 World Cup, to England in Euro 1996 and to Korea in the 2002 World Cup; all on June 22, all in quarterfinals, and all in penalty shootouts. But this time around, on June 22 of all dates, "The Reds" made history, eliminating Gianluigi Buffon’s "Squadra Azurra" on a Cesc Fabregas penalty shot. The Arsenal midfielder decided it, but Casillas was the star, stopping two of Italy’s four shots, to break the spell.
Starting with the right foot
Things were not easy for veteran manager Luis Aragonés. "The Wiseman of Hortaleza" (the Spanish manager’s nickname) was conflicted as to who should join "The Kid" (Liverpool’s Fernando Torres) up front. His decision to not bring former Spanish captain and current Real Madrid forward Raúl to the tournament received scrutiny from the media. In retrospect, Aragonés started with the right foot.
The first game was against a tough Russian team that arrived at Euro 2008 as one of the potential surprises. Aragonés chose Valencia’s David Villa to team with Torres at the attack. Villa answered the call of duty, scoring three goals in the great 4-1 victory over Dutch manager Gus Hiddink’s Russia.
Spain’s next match ended in a dramatic 2-1 victory over Sweden. Villa’s goal in the last minute clinched a quarterfinal birth for Spain in what proved to be the toughest Group of Euro 2008. Only this group was able to place two teams in the semifinals (Spain and Russia), while both Italy and The Netherlands in the proclaimed "Group of Death" were eliminated in the quarters.
Villa, Despite playing less than three games and a half (he was rested against Greece, and left the semi-final contest with an injury), claimed the "Pichichi" (as top scorers are called in Spain), by recording a total of four goals in Euro 2008.
After a meaningless win over Greece, with a 2-1 victory recorded by the "B" squad, Spain faced Italy. Without Andrea Pirlo and Gattuso (sanctioned) at midfield, Francesco Totti at the attack and Favio Cannavaro (injured) on defense, Spain shot down the Italian side that looked nothing like the one that conquered the World Cup two years ago.
In the semifinal against Russia, Spain sported its golden shirt for the first time in an official tournament. Scoreless at half, the lights must have been turned on, as "The Reds" shined more than any jersey could in the final 45 minutes. In a great combo manufactured at FC Barcelona, Andrés Iniesta passed to Xavi, who scored inside the box to put Spain ahead, 1-0, early in the second half. From that point on, Spain dominated. Making up for the injured Villa, Fabregas added two spectacular assists to Mallorca’s Dani Güiza and Valencia’s David Silva, for a convincing 3-0 win. Russian star Andrei Arshavin was shut down by Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos, and Spain avenged the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal defeat against a Korean team coached at the time by Hiddink.
The championship game:
As defined by English striker Gary Lineker, who topped the 1986 World Cup in scoring: "Soccer is a sport played by eleven people facing another eleven people, and at the end Germany always wins."
Spain was confident going into the final contest. In fact, Aragones’ men were the favorite to come out victorious. But, Germany is Germany: a hard-nosed team that without making too much noise qualified for the championship game. Though they did upset a Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal side in the quarterfinal; Luiz Felipe Scolari’s last match as coach of the Portuguese.
In Spain, people wore red shirts all day long, including some who attended church dressed like their beloved stars. More than one million people attended the Colon Square in Madrid to watch on a big screen and hopefully celebrate after the contest. Television audiences broke records. The game recorded a historic share of 70%, and the goal scored by Torres registered a remarkable share of over 88%.
German manager Joachim Low, a tenacious studier of the game, decided to gamble at the start, pressing Spain all over the field, looking for a steal that would generate an early goal.
It didn’t happen and fifteen minutes into the game, Spain took control of the contest. Torres hit the post with a header. And then, at minute 33, Xavi served a perfect assist to "The Kid". The Liverpool striker beat Philip Lahm on the run and kicked the ball smoothly, taking profit of a bad move by goalkeeper Jans Lehmann, to score the game’s only goal.
In the second half, Spain showed that the best defense is a good offense. Led by defensive midfielder and Brazil-born Marco Senna, Spain controlled ball possession and created several scoring chances that could have easily translated into more goals.
"We won, and the most amazing thing is that we did not have to suffer in the process", said famous radio host José Ramón de la Morena at the start of his midnight sports show.