Are Spain the greatest national side ever?

Weeks after the final and the most recent title for Spain is not the time to provide a balance of the Euro2012. The question I would like to address is much simpler: is this Spain side the best of all times? As in all comparisons, one should start by defining its parameters. In this case, the question is: what constitutes being the best? I’ll try to answer by approaching the question from different angles.

Number of trophies
This is the one more readily pointed as the evidence of spanish superiority over any other country in history. The fact that a run of two European Championships and one World Cup has never achieved is an immediate indication that Spain are on a level of their own. in this aspect Spain has one single rival: the Uruguay side of 1924-30 as pointed by Jonathan Wilson. That was the only side to have won consecutive tournaments in the manner of the spaniards. The question of whether the Olympics can be placed in the same level of the Eusopean Championship is moot. At the time it was an important competition (the only real international one) and involved (in theory) countries from all over the world. However, some countries did not bother to travel to some of the tournaments at the time and it is possible to make the case that the uruguayans did not face as serious an opposition as Spain.
Any other possible contenders (Italy in the 30’s, West Germany in the 70’s) either failed one of the possible trophies in the run or had other blemishes. In terms of simply taking trophies, Spain hardly has rivals. The main question could have been placed by Brazil between 1958 and 1962, but they failed to get the Copa America in 1959 and became thus ineligible, even if in those times this was considered by them as a minor tournament. In any case, Spain could then be considered, using these criteria, as the best national side ever.

On the pitch
This is a much trickier proposition and one that can be directly answered: no one team could be considered as the best ever. The differences are too great to mention and, furthermore, football itself changes so fast these days that it is debatable whether this Spain team of 2012 could be considered the same as that of 2008. From the back five, only two players remained and one of them in a different position. From the midfield, only Iniesta and Xavi featured regularly four years ago. Whereas that team fielded two identifiable strikers, this one has none. It would actually be a much more interesting exercise to have Spain 2008 play Spain 2012 to see which would come out on top.
Taking thses caveats in mind, one has to compare not with the above mentioned other contenders, but with Brazil 1970. However, brilliant as that side was, it was built for one single tournament and dazzled as much for the yellow shirts appearing for the first time in colour in TV’s all across the world, as for the amazing quality and balance of a team that was not expected to achieve those breathtaking football heights. Spain, at least if considering the core of Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, have been battering opponents for four years straight, only occasionally conceding goals and never failing in knock-out stages. It is possible to imagine that Brazil 1970 could challenge Spain 2012, but it is unlikely. With a side built to use the ball but without the guile to defend adequatly, Brazil would probably be, as almost anyone else, passed into submission.
In this aspect, a much better case could be made for West Germany 1974. In Holland, the germans faced an opponent built around very much the same guidelines of passing and movement and, on Cruijff, had the individual brilliance that Spain lacks. Still, the germans managed to win, using a mixture of tactics, desire, strength and brilliant football. Furthermore, in Müller they had a striker who would not forgive the few mistakes the spanish back four could commit. In terms of trophies, the germans would come short. In terms of their impact on the game at the time, they could challenge the spaniards.
(A small interlude to explain the impact point. Even though we today remember the Holland side and their clockwork brilliance as much as we now are mesmerised by the passing of Spain, these are extremely difficult levels to achieve that come once every two generations. A much more lasting legacy may come from the tactical or technical innovations that managed to stiffle these sides. Nobody managed to follow the dutch from the 70’s, but the german approach was used to exhaustion and ended up being followed far more widly than the former approach).
Similarly to the germans, the uruguayans could be pointed as possible contenders for the title of best. Due to technical and tactical differences (not to mention physical) as well as the advent of professionalism, there is no chance that a magically transported Uruguay team from 2930 could compete would present day Spain. Still, taking the realities of the time into consideration, Uruguay, with their silky approach to football, could be contenders for the best ever.
In this thought exercise, some space should be made for famous losers. Hungary 1954, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982/86 should all be remembered. In tournaments of only a few weeks where one slip can be fatal, one should forgive somewhat those wonderful teams that captured our imagination more than the eventual winners.

Can we then declare a winner. Not really. Not objectively, in any case. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in this case it is also true (just replace “beauty” by “greatness”). Spain are, undoubtebly, the greatest national side in the last 20 years. Possibly 50 years. Beyond that it becomes a muddy issue. What nobody can deny is that they belong amongst the greatest ever and are creating a unique dinasty. Much of that may be due to the present laws of the game as much as their youth policy. This, however, is an issue for another time.