KIEV, Ukraine -- What's at stake when Spain meets Italy in the Euro 2012 final here on Sunday? For the Spanish, the final (ESPN/3/Deportes, 2:45 p.m. ET) provides the chance to take their place in soccer lore as one of the greatest national teams in the history of the sport. No country has ever held two European Championships and the World Cup trophy at the same time. And for all the talk of Spain winning without playing at its best, you just can't argue with three major titles in a row.
Once this tournament is set down in the history books, one of the statistics that will not so much leap off the page as run screaming out, waving its flame-licked limbs about all over the place is that by Day 11 just one penalty had been awarded. And even that was saved, Poland substitute goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton stopping Giorgos Karagounis' effort on Day 1.
They say the Ballon d'Or is democratic but it's not. Not really. A proper democratic vote surely relies on a universal, secret ballot. By contrast, one of the things that makes the Ballon d'Or vote so interesting to pick over is the fact that you can pick over it. The real fun comes after Messi and Xavi have stepped down from the podium and the list of voters and votes is handed out.
There are still those, remarkably, who ask whether tactics really matter, still those who persist with the Luddite insistence that the best players will win out come what may. No matter that Lionel Messi never produces his Barcelona form for Argentina or that Dani Alves regularly flounders for Brazil, Barcelona, these flat-earthers keep saying, win because they have the best players.
There were contrasting fortunes for the two superstars of La Liga as Lionel Messi missed an injury time penalty for Barcelona in the Nou Camp to allow Real Madrid to go top as Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed a quickfire hat-trick.
Peace came via a punch up. Spain came from two goals down to win 3-2 against Chile on Sept. 2, Cesc Fàbregas scored twice to make it five goals in four matches, and Andres Iniesta was so good that one newspaper gave him four marks out of three, the Chile coach saying: "he destroyed us." But that was not the best thing that happened. The best thing that happened was a fight.
It was the perfect end for the perfect tournament, the moment that many said defined him. Thiago Alcántara saw his opportunity and took the free kick quickly, sending the ball 40 yards, beyond the goalkeeper and into the net. When the backspin on the ball was broken by the net, the score line became 2-0 to Spain and the European U-21 Championships had been secured. The Swiss goalkeeper was caught out a little off his line but the speed of thought and precision of execution still impressed; not least because the goal felt like the culmination of 10 days of wonderful soccer -- the proof that here stood a real revelation, a special talent.
It sounds like a simple assignment: acting as general manager, assemble a soccer team featuring the best player in the world at each of the 11 positions. But as anyone who follows the sport knows, choosing that team is a complicated exercise. You want to reward the most talented individuals, of course, but you also want a coherent team. What's more, the result represents a sort of personal mission statement. How do I want to see soccer played? Is it possible in the 21st century to combine great aesthetics with winning fútbol?
Diminutive midfielder Andres Iniesta will always be remembered for scoring two of the biggest goals in the history of FC Barcelona and Spain's national team: in the 2009 Champions league and 2010 World Cup. SI.com's Richard Deitsch and María Poveda Lloret recently caught up with him:
WEMBLEY, ENGLAND -- Surely now the doubters have been won over: this Barcelona is one of the greatest teams there has ever been. In Pep Guardiola's three seasons in charge Barca has twice won the Champions League, and it was denied a hat trick that would have placed it statistically alongside the Ajax and Bayern Munich sides of the seventies only by the combined might of Jose Mourinho and an Icelandic volcano.
Barcelona's team we know; Manchester United's is a matter of speculation, a fact that, in itself, is indicative of two things. First, that Barcelona is the favorite, with such a defined and familiar style of play that, even in this age of rotation, it is possible, as with the greats of the past, to rattle through a first eleven.
This is the third of a rapid-fire quartet of clasicos thrown up by the fixture list, and a fascinating one it is too. Barcelona thrashed Real 5-0 earlier in the season and is comfortably considered the best team in the world, but Jose Mourinho has overseen a damaging couple of weeks for Barca's self-esteem. Real came back from behind to secure a 1-1 draw in La Liga, and last week lifted the Copa del Rey thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's extra-time strike. Real's 6-3 thrashing of Valencia confirms Pep Guardiola's outfit as unfamiliar underdogs, with Andres Iniesta's absence through injury only reinforcing that.
Ask anybody who's done it, and they'll tell you that sustaining success is much harder than achieving it in the first place. The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann refused ever to spend longer than three years at a club because he felt that after that he could no longer motivate players. It may be that in the modern world of soccer in which money begets money, success is easier to sustain than previously, at least on a domestic level. On a European scale what that means is a cluster of perhaps eight or so super powers constantly battling for the Champions League, which is surely the main reason no side has successfully defended the title since the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi in 1990.
After bathing in the cesspool of FIFA politics last week, I'll admit it: I wanted to hear a story that restored some credibility to the great global game of soccer. And wouldn't you know it, I found one, courtesy of Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona, an energetic Baltimore foundation and a 17-year-old high school senior from Suwanee, Ga., named Jordyn Farrell.
Greatness is not measured in medals alone but in style. "Great clubs," Arrigo Sacchi said, "have had one thing in common throughout history, regardless of era and tactics. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play and when you are defending, you control the space."
JOHANNESBURG -- For all the controversy and the perceived injustices, for all the bad fouls and dubious decisions, for all the aesthetic/ideological debates about Spain being boring and the Dutch being nasty (or vice versa, if you will), it came down to this:
OK, so since there isn't much going on in the next few months -- Champions League coming back, Copa Libertadores, domestic leagues going down to the wire and that thing we call the World Cup -- it might make sense to get a jump on what could well be one of the stories of the summer: the future of Cesc Fàbregas.
ROME -- The Eternal City was the most appropriate of backdrops for what we witnessed on Wednesday. It was supposed to be a case of the true believers: Barcelona and its quasi-fundamentalist, possession-oriented credo thrown to the lions of Manchester United's top-to-bottom combination of strength, athleticism and quality. It was dogmatism versus pragmatism.
After a lackluster 2-1 win over Peru last Saturday, Spanish national-team coach Luis Aragonés is likely to make several changes when his troops face the U.S. in their final pre-European Championship warm-up on Wednesday in Santander (live on espn360.com at 4 p.m. ET; on delay on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m.).