After Spain failed to advance from the group stages at Euro 2004, manager Iñaki Sáez fell out of favor and was reassigned to the U-21 squad. After a brief search, the Federation came to a consensus: Luis Aragonés would be the next manager of the Spanish national team.
“Luis deserved this recognition as a prize for a brilliant professional trajectory. I congratulate him and I wish him the best in the next stage that he will begin for the national team. Getting to this point is always an attraction and even more for Luis Aragonés — for him, this is the culmination of a whole life dedicated to football.”
At the time, Raúl didn’t know that these would be some of his last words as a member of the national team.
Previously, Spain had played a fast paced 4-2-3-1 with big central midfielders and flyers on the wings. This “furious” style of play had earned the team its “la furia roja” moniker which remains to this day. Raúl played up top as the team’s sole attacking focal point.
Though Johan Cruyff pioneered the style at Barcelona, Aragonés made tiki-taka a household concept, installing the system as soon as he took over the national team. Aragonés tossed out the 4-2-3-1 and empowered smaller central midfielders like Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta as the fulcrum of the squad. In a symbolic move, he dropped Raúl during Euro 2008 qualification, as he preferred to focus on the development of younger strikers - David Villa and Fernando Torres - who fit better with the timeline and playing style of Spain’s golden generation of midfielders.
Results were iffy at first. Spain advanced from the group stage at the 2006 World Cup, and although Villa opened the scoring against France in the round of 16, Spain were quickly dismissed by the head-butting eventual runner-ups. Qualification for Euro 2008 got off to a bumpy start, too; Spain were soundly beaten by a pedestrian Sweden squad in the first match of the post-Raúl era, which led to a number of calls for Aragonés’ job.
Nevertheless, Zapatones - whom a former player described as having “square balls” - stuck to his guns and continued to build the team around Iniesta, Xavi, Villa, Torres, Cesc Fábregas and Xabi Alonso. The team would dominate the rest of qualification and continue its hot run of form all the way to the Euro 2008 final against Germany.
As the story goes, Aragonés was making the rounds in the locker room before the match, spending a moment with each player. Torres - who, at this point, had moved to Liverpool and become a global footballing sensation - sat at his locker with his head down. He had been on a miserable run of form, seemingly unable to buy a goal at the Euros.
Aragonés approached. He drew a cross on Torres’s forehead.
“Niño,” he said, “you’re going to score today.”
After he spoke with Torres, Aragonés addressed the rest of the team: “You’re the best there is. If we don’t win the Euros, it’s because I did a s*** job.”
The rest is history. Xavi played the ball into Torres’ path, and El Niño held off Philipp Lahm to dink the ball over Jens Lehmann and into the open goal. Spain won, 1-0, and kicked off an era of footballing dominance that lasted over the course of three major international tournaments. Spain had announced itself to the world.
Aragonés left his post after the Euros, having laid the groundwork for Vicente del Bosque’s successes at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
The reverence of Spain’s tiki-taka style and the deification of Iniesta and Xavi are Aragonés’ handiwork. It seems ironic given the direct and defensive inclination of the current Atlético Madrid squad, but the beautiful tiki-taka of the best Spanish national teams and the grind-it-out mentality of Cholismo trace their roots back to the same source. Aragonés’ fingerprints are all over Spanish football, and both Atlético and the national team are in his debt for a lot of their current success.
After the Euros triumph, Aragonés could have simply drove off into the sunset. However, like many athletes who love their craft, he may have held on a bit too long. Like Michael Jordan on the Wizards, Joe Montana on the Chiefs or Paul Pierce on any number of teams, there is Luis Aragonés as manager of Fenerbahçe. Aragonés called it quits for good after a year in the Turkish capital.