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A Cup above

KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Brazil's champions of 1970 may have had more individual stars, but Spain dominates like no other squad with its team concept

July 08, 2012|KEVIN BAXTER
  • Spanish national team captain Iker Casillas and Coach Vicente del Bosque, center, show King Juan Carlos I the Euro 2012 champion's trophy during a celebration in Madrid on Monday.
Spanish national team captain Iker Casillas and Coach Vicente del Bosque,… (Ballesteros / EPA )

As a soccer player, Pele was undoubtedly among the greatest talents the game has seen.

But he hasn't aged as gracefully as he once played. He frequently comes off as curmudgeonly and defensive these days -- which is exactly how he sounded when asked whether Spain's unprecedented victory in last week's Euro 2012 makes the Iberian team the best of all time.

"Each generation has its preferences, but without doubt, if we are comparing, the 1970 generation was better," said Pele, who played for Brazil's 1970 World Cup winner. "The 1970 Brazil team had many more [great] individual players than Spain, which has two or three excellent players."

Instead of counting stars, though, perhaps Pele should count major championships. And with consecutive European titles sandwiched around a World Cup victory, Spain wins that contest almost as easily as it beat Italy in the Euro final.

Then consider the rest of Spain's resume:

* Its 4-0 victory over Italy was the most one-sided ever in a European Championship or World Cup final.

* Spain is the only team to win consecutive Euros. And, as the reigning World Cup champion, it is the only country to hold three major international titles at the same time.

* Not only has Spain not lost a knockout-round game at the Euros or World Cup since 2006, it hasn't even conceded a goal in knockout games in that time.

* Spain has been ranked no lower than second in the FIFA world rankings since July 2008.

* And even before the championship run started, Spain had embarked on a 35-match unbeaten streak, matching a Brazilian streak from the 1990s as the longest in international history.

"This is a great era for Spanish football," Spain Coach Vicente del Bosque said, quite unnecessarily.

And there could be one, maybe two, more titles to come because midfielder Xavi, the oldest member of the Spain team, will be only 34 for the next World Cup in 2014.

That should end any debate over which team is the best ever. But more titles won't be necessary to convince some.

"Spain are better than everybody," Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi said in the wake of the Euro 2012 final. "In 10 games against them you will lose seven or eight. If you win or draw, it means everything went [perfectly] for your side. We did not manage to cause them any problems."

And that, of course, is what makes this team so good: No one manages to cause it any problems. No matter who it is playing, it is always Spain imposing its will rather than the other way around.

Spain's style is a demanding, disciplined one based on ball control, close-to-the-ground passing and technical superiority. And it's one perfectly suited to a roster deep in the midfield with a back line that is virtually impenetrable.

So though Pele may be right that his 1970 team had more great individual players -- stars such as Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho and Tostao -- Spain has the better team. The Brazilian defense could be exploited -- en route to its World Cup win it gave up two goals to both Peru and Romania and seven overall, the most by a winning team in the last 13 World Cup tournaments.

Spain gave up fewer scores its last 19 World Cup and European Championship matches combined.

Still, Pele is wrong about Spain's star power. Whether the Spanish lack the flamboyance and athleticism of Pele and his teammates is irrelevant because the team's style of play doesn't put a premium on those skills.

It does put a premium on team play and possession, though, and every player on Spain's roster is comfortable with the ball. Even so, Xavi and Andres Iniesta will certainly be remembered as two of the best midfielders of all time and Iker Casillas is already on the short list for greatest keeper.

Comparing teams from different eras is always a dicey proposition -- in any sport. The Philadelphia Athletics won more than 200 games and back-to-back World Series in 1910 and 1911 in the dead-ball era, hitting 54 home runs combined to do it. In the last six seasons, four players have hit that many home runs all by themselves. The game has changed.

And so it is in soccer. Spain's dominance comes at a time when the international game is in a down cycle, arguably making the game easier to dominate. Despite the unparalleled brilliance of individual players such Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Spain hasn't had to contend with the kind of powerhouses Pele played against with Brazil or that Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina faced in the 1970s and '80s.

But there has been one constant over the years: The goal of the game has been to win. And Spain has done that like no other team in history.

That alone is enough to qualify it as the greatest team of all time.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Soccer's greatest teams

Its rout of Italy in last week's Euro 2012 final had many calling the current Spanish team the best of all time. But here are some others who can stake a claim to that title:

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