MADRID: The two goals that finally confirmed Spain's rise as a football superpower, scored a couple of years apart, were demonstrations of a system that has become a buzzword on the lips of fans around the world: Tiki-Taka.
The first goal, hailed as a mixture of anticipation, ferocious pace and delicacy of finish, saw Spain striker Fernando Torres race past Germany's defence to secure the 2008 European Championship crown. The second — rifled into the Netherlands' goal by an adroit and artistic Andres Iniesta — enabled Spain to lift the 2010 World Cup.
Leading up to each goal, vast television audiences had witnessed the subtle yet ruthlessly effective one-touch, rapid passing artistry labeled Tiki-Taka, a system developed by Barcelona and eventually adopted by Spain's national team to help it finally shrug off the label of being the sport's eternal underachievers.
But Spanish football was not always so attractive.
There is another moniker that better tells the story of Spain's footballing past — “La Furia” or “The Fury” — as the team was once known.
“In the old days — not least when (dictator Francisco) Franco was around — it was 'La Furia' that defined Spanish football — tough and uncompromising but lacking style or consistency,” said Jimmy Burns, the author of the book “La Roja” — named after the team's current nickname.
As one of the first countries on the European continent to adopt football, which took root in the late 1890s with the arrival of British miners and traders to the mineral-rich southwestern region of Rio Tinto, Spain also initially adopted the more physical English style of play.
For decades, Spanish football followed in the fast-charging, busy British mould, dominated by an overwhelming urge to win. The third-oldest club in Spain even took on English spelling: Athletic Bilbao.
The “La Furia” name stems from a historic 2-1 comeback against Sweden at the 1920 Summer Olympics. Before scoring the equalizer, gruff midfielder Jose Maria Belauste was heard shouting: “Pass me the ball, I'm going to steamroll them.”
However, even “La Furia” eventually began to acquire some South American flair thanks to the arrival at Real Madrid of exceptionally talented players such as Uruguayan defender Jose Santamaria and Argentine forward Alfredo Di Stefano, both of which ended up switching nationality and playing for Spain.
But the real revolution was triggered by Hungary, Santamaria said.
The Hungarian national squad known as the Mighty Magyars had dominated world football for years and were on a record unbeaten run going into the 1954 World Cup, winning with an attack-minded and high-scoring style of play that no team at the time could match. The heavily favoured Hungarians lost 3-2 in the final to host West Germany — a result the Germans still call “The Miracle of Bern” — but Santamaria said the team left a mark that's still visible in today's football.
“I played that championship with Uruguay,” Santamaria told The Associated Press in an interview.
“It was an almost perfect team. Their football was so beautiful and the Hungarians had such great players — a sensational team. Their tactical systems influenced the evolution of modern football, the famous Tiki-Taka.”
Among those who took note of Hungary's style was then 26-year-old Rinus Michels, a Dutch striker playing for Ajax who went on to become one of the world's top coaches.
Michels refined Hungarian coach Gusztav Sebes' on-field single-touch tactics and something Santamaria defined as “a consciousness among players, and a belief in themselves that what they were doing was good.”
“It became a team effort with mental and physical preparation,” Santamaria said. While Hungary's top player Ferenc Puskas played for Real Madrid, it was archrival Barcelona that would foster Tiki-Taka, largely thanks to the arrival of Michels as coach.
The Dutchman gave birth to the concept known as “Total Football,” which was later further refined by his disciple Johan Cruyff.
When Spain lost at the 1982 World Cup to lowly Northern Ireland, Santamaria said a decision was taken to adopt a youth policy similar to that which Cruyff had persuaded Barcelona to adopt three years earlier with La Masia — which in turn was based on Michels' Ajax Academy.
With football constantly evolving, it is perhaps no surprise that the Tiki-Taka style is now more intricate and impressive than ever — arguably perfected by the Barcelona teams led by Lionel Messi and Spain's national team, which shows no signs of slowing down.
By the time the Euro 2012 final ended, not even Italian fans were surprised that Spain had thumped an un-answered four goals past Gianluigi Buffon, one of the world's best goalkeeper playing for a team traditionally known for its defensive solidity.
“If the best team doesn't win we usually say, 'that's football,'” Santamaria said, pointing out that neither Hungary nor the Netherlands have ever won the World Cup.
“With Spain that hasn't happened.”