Gazing into the camera lens and speaking in his crisp Catalan lilt, Cesc Fabregas utters the documentary’s first few words — “I had to take a penalty.” The scene cuts to the Ernst-Happel Stadion in Austria and Fabregas is seen breaking away from the Spanish camp by the half-line. He sighs as he walks up to the spot. In front of him stands Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon.
“It wasn’t just a penalty,” Fabregas adds. It sure wasn’t.
Until that moment, in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 against Italy, Fabregas hadn’t taken a penalty in his professional career. Not once. Now, his kick had more than just a match riding on it. The toe of his boot had the chance to send perennial underachievers Spain into the semifinals, where they would finally get an opportunity to turn years of pent-up frustration into potential.
In Cesc’s Story of Spain, a documentary that narrates a gripping tale of La Roja’s first tryst with success, the footage fades to black the moment he makes contact with the ball. And then, the video bursts into a montage of manic celebrations. Spain captain Iker Casillas hoists the Euro 2008 trophy. Then he kisses the World Cup in 2010. And finally, he lifts Euro 2012 as well.
For the Spanish football team and its bunch of now-smug supporters, the last six years must perhaps be a similar blur; a blur of incomprehensible brilliance. Quite like a dream, where the imagery arrives in snatches, one minute they’re on the verge of yet another disappointment and the next, they’re a generation defining football team — hailed among the greatest ever.
For Holland, however, Spain’s success is anything but a haze. Just ask Wesley Sneijder, who can recall each of the 120 minutes of the World Cup 2010 final in Johannesburg and everyday since that he has spent cursing it. “We were so close to penalties, just three minutes before the end of extra time,” said Sneijder on Holland’s arrival in Salvador, reminding the press of exactly when Andres Iniesta’s 117th minute decider at Soccer City arrived four years ago. “That’s really the low point of my career — walking past the Cup and not holding it. That will always be my rockbottom.”
On that night, Sneijder was only one of two Dutch players who was not shown the yellow card (14 yellows and one red were flashed by Howard Webb in what was considered the ugliest final of them all). Four years on, when Holland seek to bury the ghosts of Jo’burg during their opening game against the reigning world champions, Sneijder is only one of seven Dutch players to not get the axe from the previous World Cup squad.
Spain, on the other hand, have retained as many as 18 players continued…