Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 103 goals in 93 games for Real Madrid, but it’s three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi who’s regarded by some as the greatest player ever to have graced the beautiful game (image from: premiershipticketsonline.com)
Just a few years ago, Manchester United and Chelsea were the two dominant forces in European football. Since then, the shift of footballing dominance has firmly shifted to Spain: the national side won the Euros in 2008 and the most recent World Cup, and FC Barcelona are on the verge of becoming the first team to retain the coveted Champions League trophy, an annual tournament for the power-houses of European club football. What has brought about this change? Is it all to do with money? Real Madrid broke all records when they signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Man United in 2009 for €94,000,000 and added to this further colossal signings including the Brazilian Kaká for €65 million, familiar face Xabi Alonso from Liverpool for €30 million and Karim Benzema from Lyon for a further €35 million. Alternatively, it could be argued that the Spanish philosophy and style of play has caused this shift in quality.
You may wonder why Real Madrid have spent so much money in the past few years – it’s because of FC Barcelona. Regarded by some as the greatest club side ever, the side is formed of players who came from their very own academy; players like Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas, among others. It would be impossible to speak of Barcelona, however, without reference to Lionel Messi, the 24-year-old Argentine who refreshingly grabs headlines for his brilliance on the pitch rather than his stupidity off it (maybe John Terry, Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli could learn a thing or two from Messi, and not just in footballing terms).
Barcelona have championed the style of play whereby possession and short passing is key. In last season’s Champions League, Barcelona had 67% of the possession against an Arsenal team who pride themselves on their ability to retain the ball for long periods of time. Barcelona won the game 3-1; in fact, Arsenal didn’t have a single shot on target compared with Barça’s 13 (Arsenal’s goal was an own-goal, if you’re wondering how they scored without a shot on target!). Barcelona were last beaten over two legs in Europe by Inter Milan in 2010 – who went on to win the tournament – and the stats in this game were equally impressive. Xavi made the most successful passes, an incredible 93 even on Inter’s turf; Inter Milan’s best passer was Zanetti, who made fewer passes even than Barça’s keeper, Victor Valdes.
It’s not just club level that Spain is dominating. Spain have won the last two national tournaments, beating Germany 1-0 in the European Championships in 2008 and the Netherlands 1-0 after extra-time in the World Cup final in 2010. Quite rightly, the Spaniards are favourites to win this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament to complete an historic hat-trick of consecutive tournament successes. Spain’s national side is almost exclusively made up of Real Madrid and Barcelona players, ironic in a sense as they spend most of the time in competition with one another, only to be forced to unite at a national level. Funnily enough, Madrid and Barcelona’s best players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (see picture below) are not Spaniards themselves – Messi is the captain of Argentina and Ronaldo of Portugal. It shows, therefore, that the quality of the two clubs extends beyond individual players and although the two maestros have contributed to the respective successes of their clubs, football remains a team game and the Spanish national side is a perfect example of this. Only a few players who do not play for Madrid or Barcelona such as Fernando Torres and Juan Mata (both Chelsea), David Silva (Man City) and Jordi Alba (Valencia) have realistic chances of breaking into Spain’s first team.
With Champions League semi-finals imminent, it will be fascinating to see if either Chelsea (who will face Barcelona) or Bayern Munich (who have Real Madrid) can cause an upset to prevent an overly-competitive El Clàsico (Spanish for ‘The Classic’) final.