KIEV (Reuters) - The praise has been raining down on Spain from all quarters following their 4-0 destruction of Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final and the question on everyone’s lips is - are they the best team ever to have played the game?
A scientist would say it is a question that cannot be answered, because the Spain team who triumphed with such panache in Kiev, were not the same 11, or 14 players, who won the World Cup two years ago or who began their unprecedented treble by winning the 2008 European Championship.
Fans, however, are not restricted by such pedantry. They are free to compare teams in whichever way they like - by a particular match, tournament, or even era.
The bald statistics seem to make an incontestable case for the Spanish team of 2008-2012. They are the only team to successfully defend the European Championship, claimed by some to be a harder tournament to win than the World Cup, which they also lifted in 2010.
They did not concede a single goal in any of the knockout round matches in those three tournaments, let in only one in all six games in Ukraine and Poland and their 4-0 triumph was the biggest winning margin in any World Cup or Euro final.
The nearest any previous nation has come to matching that level of consistency was the West Germany side who won the 1972 European title, followed by the 1974 World Cup but who then lost on penalties to Czechoslovakia in the 1976 Euro final.
That team, built on the defensive class of Franz Beckenbauer and the phenomenal strike rate of centre forward Gerd Mueller, triumphed in an era when Johan Cruyff’s classy Netherlands were vying for supremacy.
West Germany also won the 1980 European Championship and reached the final of the 1982, 86 and 90 World Cups, winning the latter, as part of an era of unsurpassed dominance but the only link between the early 70s team and their followers was Beckenbauer, who won the World Cup as captain and coach.
The only team to match Spain’s haul of three successive major continental titles were Argentina, who won the then-annual Copa America in 1945, 46 and 47, while Italy’s back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 1934 and 1938 were in a fledgling tournament with limited competition that makes it very difficult to compare with modern equivalents.
Any European country operating before the advent of their own continental competition in 1960 were obviously limited to the World Cup for tangible evidence of their power, which counts heavily against the Hungary team of the 1950s who many claim to have revolutionised the way the game was played.
Inspired by Ferenc Puskas, Hungary were undoubtedly the dominant force of their age and put together a run of 51 games over six years from 1952-56 with only one defeat.
They won the 1952 Olympic football tournament and chalked up stunning 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England but that single blot on their record unfortunately came in the final of the 1954 World Cup when they lost to a West Germany side they had hammered 8-3 in the group stage.
The Hungarian Revolution two years later brought an end to the team and ended any realistic chance of claiming the World Cup win they needed to put them on the same level with the greatest teams of all.
Brazil then took up the mantle, winning the 1958, 62 and 70 World Cups, though only Pele featured in all three competitions. If that makes it difficult to consider the Brazil team of that era as one entity - and they had a 40-year barren spell in the Copa America to further undermine their credentials - then concentrating on the 1970 side is more fruitful territory.
Held up by many observers to be the benchmark by which all others are compared, the 1970 team were undoubtedly a complete package in every area.
Carlos Alberto, Tostao, Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivelino and Pele are names that trip off the tongue almost half a century after they also tore through a strong Italy side 4-1 in a commanding performance in the final.
To suggest at the time that in future years a team playing largely without any forwards would be considered as possibly superior would have been laughable, yet Spain’s own redefinition of the way the game is played and the rewards it has reaped, make a strong case.
True, they have needed penalty shootouts en route to both their European triumphs and were beaten by Switzerland in the group phase of the World Cup, but they have ridden those troubles and roared back on every occasion.
Not even the total football Hungarian or Dutch sides had such depth of talent, where every player in every position is an example of the art of touch, control, passing and spatial awareness.
”We are talking about a great generation of footballers,“ said their victorious coach Vicente Del Bosque. This is a great era for Spanish football.”
For all football.
Editing by Justin Palmer