|Spain goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas, who maintained his record of not conceding a goal in the knockout stage of a tournament for the 10th successive match, lifts the trophy. (AP)
Magnificent Spain are the history men of world football. Their high-class 4-0 dismissal of Italy at the climax of Euro 2012 here in the Olympic Stadium established them as the only nation ever to raise three major trophies in a row and the only one ever to retain the European title.
This was also the biggest victory in the 52-year history of the final of the second most prestigious tournament in international football after the World Cup.
The champions of 2008 evolved into world champions in 2010 and have now progressed to record holders. Goals from David Silva and Jordi Alba in the first half, then from substitutes Fernando Torres and Juan Mata in the second, also offered father-figure Vicente Del Bosque a personal footnote in history: he is the first coach to win the World Cup, the European Championship and the Champions League.
Many tournament finals are disappointments: the 2010 World Cup final was rendered gruesomely ugly by frightened Holland. Italy here were not afraid of Spain: they did their best to take the game to the champions.
This, above all, was the defining measure of Spain’s magnificence: they stood up to the best a fine Italian side could throw at them — and threw it all back with interest.
The twin giants of Latin Europe had met in their very first game at these finals when they settled for a 1-1 draw in Gdansk in the northwest of Poland.
Spain maintained their pursuit of glory with a preference for possession over penetration. Hence Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas was once more the so-called “false nine” in a team without a recognised striker.
Italy maintained a more traditional appearance with four defenders, Andrea Pirlo hanging deep to use that space as playmaker, and the young tyro Mario Balotelli and old fox Antonio Cassano up front.
The Italians, as superb goalkeeper-captain Gigi Buffon had conceded before the game, were the surprise team of the Euros: not only because they had never been favoured to reach the final but because of the positive nature of much of their football, defying the old catenaccio stereotype. Also, of course, the Italians were defying the scandal-ridden image of a domestic game staggering from one match-fixing scandal to another.
But the new Italy never had a chance against the old, commanding Spain.
Del Bosque’s men appeared to have twice as many men in midfield, and that “flooding” approach paid off with the all-important early goal.
Sergio Ramos thumped over the bar both a free kick and then a header to a corner; a delicate slice of high-pace inter-passing between Xabi Alonso and Fabregas ended with Xavi firing narrowly over; then Xavi started the 14th-minute move carried on by Andres Iniesta for a Fabregas cutback which Silva headed home.
Italy, behind for the first time in these finals, sought to press back but their passing was erratic. Pirlo could not find space or time enough to work his own brand of magic and a further disruption hit them with a hamstring injury, which forced the substitution of left back Giorgio Chiellini.
To their credit, Italy dug in. Cassano, moving relentlessly in search of a gap, had short-range and long-range shots saved by Iker Casillas. But the next goal was Spanish. Xavi was the creator with a wonderful through pass on to which left back Alba sprinted to score a hugely important first international goal.
Italy brought on Antonio Di Natale for Cassano at half-time and he proved a danger. He headed narrowly over the bar inside the first minute of the second half, then popped in a close-range shot that drew a sharp stop from Casillas.
Spain, unimpressed, rippled back down to the other end and should have had a penalty when a Ramos header was clearly blocked by the upraised arm of centre back Leonardo Bonucci. The incident occurred in front of the goal-line assistant but, as in the Ukraine-England game, he proved of no value.
Even without a penalty, the game as a contest was effectively at an end within a further few minutes. In the 56th minute, Italy brought on Thiago Motta for Riccardo Montolivo in midfield; two minutes later Motta, turning, pulled a hamstring and had to be carried off.
Italy were now down to 10 men for the rest of the evening and it was game over even before Xavi slipped substitute Torres for goal No. 3 in the 83rd minute. Torres thus became the first player ever to score in two successive European finals — and also a three-goal joint tournament top scorer — before laying on yet another goal for the newly arrived Mata.