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Posted at 09:42 PM ET, 07/01/2012

After European Championship, Spain’s place in soccer history must be kicked around

With a resounding victory over Italy on Sunday, Spain submitted a formidable claim to be recognized as one of the greatest national teams in soccer history.

La Roja lifted the European Championship trophy in Vienna four summers ago. They endured the Netherlands’ brutal assault in the World Cup final on a chilly night in Johannesburg in 2010. And in Kiev today, they left the Azzurri spell-bound in becoming the first to retain the Euro crown in its 52-year history.

There is no questioning their greatness – the elegance on the ball, the hoarding of possession, the one goal conceded in six Euro matches – and their awe-inspiring contributions to the modern game.

So we are left to decide their place in history – not a simple task when weighing Spain’s achievements against the dominant teams since 1958. I use that year as a starting point for discussion because, from there on, we can consider four competitions: World Cup (born in 1930), European Championship (1960), Copa America (formal re-launch in 1975 as South America’s ultimate event) and the Confederations Cup (1997).

Let’s address the Confederations Cup first because, as U.S. supporters are quick to point out, Bob Bradley’s crew shocked Spain in the 2009 semifinals in South Africa. Is the Confederations Cup a major tournament? That question has made for spirited discussion today on Twitter and Facebook. No, it certainly doesn’t carry the weight of the other three tournaments. It’s a FIFA-contrived event that serves as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup host and generates another revenue flow for the Zurich rulers. The fact that only eight teams participate – and 12.5 percent of the field is occupied by an Oceania team (see Tahiti in 2013) – saps the argument.

That said, it does bring some of the world’s best teams together a year before the World Cup. The Americans cited the 2009 experience in their comfort level the following year in South Africa. Had Spain won it, fans and media alike would’ve added that title to the list of recent accomplishments. They didn’t, so it was conveniently ignored today. Some are diminishing the USA feat, but in that Spain matchup, Vicente del Bosque started Casillas, Pique, Ramos, Puyol, Alonso, Fabregas, Xavi, Villa and Torres.

Was Spain sick to its stomach about failing to win the trophy? Maybe a brief cramp. La Roja rebounded to conquer the world a year later, unblemished after an opening loss to Switzerland and one goal conceded in the last six matches. Do Brazilians cite the 2009 title as a consolation prize for falling short in the World Cup a year later? Not at all.

So in the order of importance, we’ll assign four points to the World Cup, three to the European Championship, two to Copa America (fewer teams, no need to qualify, irregular scheduling) and one to the Confederations Cup.

Here are the winners since 1958:

1958 World Cup: Brazil (4)

1960 European Championship: USSR (3)

1962 WC: Brazil (4)

1964 EC: Spain (3)

1966: WC: England (4)

1968 EC: Italy (3)

1970 WC: Brazil (4)

1972 EC: West Germany (3)

1974 WC: West Germany (4)

1975 Copa America: Peru (2)

1976 EC: Czechoslovakia (3)

1978 WC: Argentina (4)

1979 CA: Paraguay (2)

1980: EC: West Germany (3)

1982 WC: Italy (4)

1983 CA: Uruguay (2)

1984 EC: France (3)

1986 WC: Argentina (4)

1987 CA: Uruguay (2)

1988 EC: Netherlands (3)

1989 CA: Brazil (2)

1990 WC: West Germany (4)

1991 CA: Argentina (2)

1992 EC: Denmark (3)

1993 CA: Argentina (2)

1994 WC: Brazil (4)

1995 CA: Uruguay (2)

1996 EC: Germany (3)

1997 CA: Brazil (2)

1997 Confederations Cup: Brazil (1)

1998 WC: France (4)

1999 CA: Brazil (2)

1999 CC: Mexico (1)

2000 EC: France (3)

2001 CA: Colombia (2)

2001 CC: France (1)

2002 WC: Brazil (4)

2003 CC: France (1)

2004 EC: Greece (3)

2004 CA: Brazil (2)

2005 CC: Brazil (1)

2006 WC: Italy (4)

2007 CA: Brazil (2)

2008 EC: Spain (3)

2009 CC: Brazil (1)

2010 WC: Spain (4)

2011 CA: Uruguay (2)

2012 EC: Spain (3)

Now obviously European teams can’t win Copa America and South American sides are ineligible for the Euro tournament, but our list does include 14 Euro events, 14 Copas, plus 14 World Cups and six Confeds. The point totals:

Brazil 32

West Germany/Germany 17

Spain 13

Argentina 12

France 12

Italy 11

Uruguay 8

This takes us to the question of the best team in a particular period of time.

No team has won consecutive World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 (and Selecao did it again in ’70). During that 12-year span, however, the Brazilians failed to win any of four South American titles.

Spain’s prospects of winning consecutive World Cups are dimmed by the age of innovators Xavi (34 in 2014) and Andres Iniesta (30), as well as forward David Villa (32), who didn’t play in this year’s Euros because of injury. Also to consider: No European team has ever won the World Cup on this side of the Atlantic in six attempts. Hosting the World Cup for the first time in 64 years, Brazil will enter as the favorite.

West Germany and France have coupled a World Cup with a Euro title within two years, but no one had ever sandwiched two Euro titles around a world championship until Spain today. On our tournament scale, that’s 10 points in just four years.

Brazil collected a World Cup and two Copas between 1994 and 1999 (eight points), and then won a World Cup, two Copas and two Confeds between 2002 and ’09 (10).

Where does this leave us?

It’s difficult to reach a conclusion because of the intangibles: quality of play, quality of competition, fitness levels, travel, club demands, etc. Were the athletes of 50 years ago on par with the specimens of today?

Another Spanish World Cup title two years from now – or just an appearance in the final -- would secure the title of greatest ever. For now, though, Pele and the boys from Brazil have a strong argument.

What do you think?

By  |  09:42 PM ET, 07/01/2012

Tags:  European Championship, Spain, Italy, Brazil, World Cup, Copa America, Confederations Cup, U.S. national team

 
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