The History of The UEFA Euro: 2012, Spain Rewrite History with Second Title

After two contrasting European Championships in 2004 and 2008 – one characterized by pragmatism and a lack of adventure in attack and the other renowned for free-flowing and opportunistic style of football – the fourteenth edition of the competition in 2012 was not so drastic in terms of approaching the game. Euro 2012 is simply remembered for the masterclass of a team that has forever written its name in the history of football books.

Spain arrived at the 2012 European Championship as the reigning European and World Champions. They were on a mission to complete an unprecedented international treble and become the first team to win back-to-back European Championships. A historic journey started by Luis Aragones was now led by Vicente Del Bosque, who took over his duties after Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph.

While Spain’s Euro 2008 squad was still relatively fresh in terms of the group of players making their mark on the international stage, the 2012 team was at the absolute peak of their powers. The continuation of the tiki taka model of play meant that it was executed at an even higher level, as the already amazing group of players were even better in terms of performance level than four years ago.

This was the last European Championship to employ the 16-team final tournament format in use since 1996; from 2016 onward, the number of participating teams increased to  24. It was also the second consecutive Euro tournament hosted by a joint bid from two countries. Poland and Ukraine won the hosting rights despite Italy’s candidacy being considered the favorite.

Twelve teams that took part in the European Championship in 2008 also qualified for the 2012 tournament, with England, Denmark and Ireland returning after missing out on the previous competition. One of the co-hosts, Ukraine, were the only nation to take part in the tournament’s finals for the first time.

The history makers: Spain celebrate back-to-back European Championship titles

In 2012, the tiki taka playing philosophy reached its peak, as the Pep Guardiola’s era at Barcelona came to an end and the Spanish national team was the last side to implement and execute this style to perfection. The outstanding quality of the players, accompanied with incredible understanding of the complexity of the system, made it virtually impossible for opposing teams to ever take the ball from La Roja.

Spain overwhelmed teams with their superior possession, but what made them a truly exceptional team was what they did with the ball when they had it. Their outstanding movement off the ball to create space and their tight passing triangles were virtually identical to the style Barcelona propagated, which had brought them similar success in the same period from 2008 to 2012. This Spain team simply played a game of cat and mouse with the rest of the teams, flitting the ball around the pitch and creating passing angles to hurt the opposition at the right moment.

Although Spain’s Euro 2012 team was virtually identical to the team that played at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, there was one major change made by Del Bosque in terms of personnel and fundamental playing philosophy. This elevated the performance level of the already unstoppable possession machine to create even more confusion in the opposing defense and make Spain’s actions in the final third even more fluid.

Del Bosque’s tactical decision was to play for the most part of the tournament without a recognized striker, the so-called “number 9.” The player who filled that void was central attacking midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who operated in a “false 9” role in most games, usually dropping into midfield to create numerical superiority against the opposition.

Cesc Fabregas was surprisingly used in the “false 9” role by Del Bosque at Euro 2012

Spain began their title defense in Group C along with Italy, Croatia and Ireland. The inclusion of Fabregas in the “false 9” role paid immediate dividends, as the then Barcelona midfielder scored the equalizer in the 64th minute to secure La Roja a point in their opening game against the Azzurri. Although their start to the tournament was not ideal considering their standards, Spain stepped up a gear in their second group game against the Irish.

The defending champions had no trouble dealing with their opponents physicality, as their short passing combinations completely rattled Ireland and secured Spain an easy 4-0 victory. Del Bosque’s men secured the top spot in the group beating Croatia thanks to Jesus Navas’ 88th-minute goal.

As the tournament entered the knockout stages, it was fairly obvious that Spain were the team to beat at Euro 2012. Eventually, it also became clear that the only team that could at least challenge the defending champions was Italy. The Azzurri knocked out England on penalties in the Quarter-Finals, with Andrea Pirlo grabbing the headlines with his legendary “Panenka” penalty kick to deceive Joe Hart.

In the Semi-Finals, Italy won another battle in their endless clash with Germany at the end of a spectacular game featuring a memorable brace from “bad boy” Mario Balotelli. That would be Super Mario‘s best performance in his short-living Azzurri career.

To make their way to  the Final, Spain first had to face France in a remake of a 2006 World Cup Round-of-16 clash. Laurent Blanc had described the Del Bosque team as “a joy to watch” but he must have found the sheer brilliance of Spain’s positional play more painful than enjoyable. Smooth and sharp on the ball, Spain seemed capable of exploiting even the tiniest of holes in Les Bleus’ defense. Xabi Alonso tried a long-range shot early on, but that was one of very few occasions when La Roja insisted to abandon their tiki taka philosophy.

A strengthened French right side, with Anthony Réveillère and Mathieu Debuchy, did not look a weak spot, but Andres Iniesta was at the top of his game at Euro 2012 and saw things that others simply did not. Réveillère had rushed inside from the full-back position and Iniesta redirected the ball to Jordi Alba, who broke away from Debuchy and played in a cross for Alonso, who headed in past Hugo Lloris.

Although the goalscorer was a worthy headliner, considering it was his 100th international cap for Spain, his midfield colleagues were no less influential. France, on the other hand, stood compact but were dull and lacked players going forward. Yohan Cabaye ‘s first-half free-kick was the only action of note from Iker Casillas.

In the second half, “false” center-forward Fabregas was substituted off and “traditional number 9” Fernando Torres came into play. The pattern did not change, however. Spain did not have the two-thirds possession that Blanc had predicted before the game, but they had more than their fair share and, most importantly, they used it with purpose. As if to prove the point, a typically intricate move from Spain led to an injury time penalty, which was comfortably converted by Alonso to put the icing on the cake.

Unlikely hero: Alonso double sent Spain into the 2012 European Championship semi-final

After comfortably discarding France in their Quarter-Final tie, Spain were set up for an Iberian clash with neighbors Portugal. It proved to be a tough match-up as La Roja struggled to implement their possession play model with efficiency for the first time in the tournament. Watching Portugal manage to neutralize Spain over 120 minutes of football may not have been super entertaining, but it was certainly intense and engaging.

Despite Portugal’s solid defending, the reigning champions were more compelling in attack, even if the decision to field Alvaro Negredo instead of tried and trusted Fabregas or Torres bore no obvious fruit. Del Bosque hoped to pose more of a physical problem to two Portuguese center-backs in Pepe and Bruno Alves, but Negredo was simply not capable of imposing his threat.

Portugal pressed well and managed to remain composed in midfield thanks to brilliant performances from Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho. In the end, however, Spain prevailed on penalties, despite Alonso missing the opening spot kick of the shoot-out, to set-up a thrilling final in Kiev. Many believed that, despite the loss, Portugal had laid the blueprint for how to prevent La Roja from playing their real game.

Fabregas scored the decisive penalty to send Spain to the third consecutive final of the major tournament 

The Final was billed as a meeting of two midfield conductors: Xavi and Pirlo. However, for much of the opening period, it was a one-man show. Spain’s number 8 took control of the game from minute one, in harmony with Iniesta, dictating La Roja’s possession play with freedom and confidence. Soon their possession was turned into a goal, with the Barcelona duo at the forefront of action.

Xavi, who saw his shot go over the bar moments earlier, served Iniesta and his fine pass allowed Fabregas to outwit Giorgio Chiellini on the inside right. There was still plenty to do, Spain made it look simple when Fabregas laid a sharp ball back for the 170cm Silva to head into the net. It was the last real outing for a disappointed Giorgio Chiellini, who soon after suffered the thigh problem that hampered him during his time in Poland and Ukraine.

Things did not get any better for the Azzurri in the second half, with Thiago Motta suffering a hamstring injury after an hour mark, which left them with no option but to play the rest of the game with ten men. Inevitably, Spain took advantage of the situation when Torres netted La Roja’s third goal of the game, becoming the first player in history to score in two different European Championship Finals. Juan Mata completed the rout by scoring Spain’s fourth to record the biggest ever victory in a European Championship Final.

The kings of international tiki taka were superior in every department, as their exuberant passing game simply took away the other teams’ ability to compete.

Read the previous episodes of our History of the UEFA Euro:

1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory
1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts
1972, Dream Debut for West Germany
1976, The Year of The Panenka
1980, The Belgium Challenge
1984, Platini’s Edition to Remember
1988, Van Basten and the Dutch Conquest
1992, The Denmark Fairy Tale
1996, Penalty Shootouts and Golden Goals
2000, France Shock Italy to Make History
2004, “Boring” Greece Stun Europe
2008, Spain and the Birth of the Tiki-Taka