Spain can look back with pride on a distinguished footballing history which has been increasingly spiced with success, never more so than in recent years as the country sandwiched 2010 FIFA World Cup glory with continental pre-eminence at both UEFA EURO 2008 and UEFA EURO 2012. Such has been the recent supremacy of this UEFA founder member that Spanish football is now considered the predominant force in the European and world game.
Spain's first milestone as a soccer nation came with the establishment of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (Real Federación Española de Fútbol or RFEF) in 1909. After the RFEF received the royal seal in 1913, the governing body was admitted to FIFA on 27 July 1914. Although it took another six summers before a full Spanish national team made its debut, losing 1-0 in Denmark in August 1920, the sport had been putting down firm roots in the Iberian territory.
The first indicator of football's arrival was the formation of RC Recreativo de Huelva in 1889. The Copa del Rey – still the premier national cup competition – got started in 1903, soon to be dominated by FC Barcelona, Athletic Club and Real Madrid CF. A decade later there were 25 RFEF-registered clubs. Even so, a national league championship only began in earnest in February 1929, involving ten teams, as efforts to unify the clubs finally bore fruit. Top-flight numbers would peak at 22 in the 1995/96 season, before dropping back to 20.
A slow starter perhaps, yet the RFEF timeline shows peaks long before the recent run of sustained success. The federation has been well represented in all club and national-team competitions. Spain won the 1964 UEFA European Championship, defeating the Soviet Union 2-1 in the final in Madrid with goals from Jesús María Pereda and Marcelino Martínez. The country's footballers also took gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a feat book-ended by silver medals in Antwerp (1920) and Sydney (2000). The honours list spans numerous titles at junior level: UEFA European Under-21 Championship triumphs in 1986, 1998, 2011 and 2013; the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1999; European U19 (formerly U18) glory in 1995, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2012; and the European U17 (formerly U16) crown in 1986, 1988, 1991, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2007 and 2008.
The same could be said of women's football as the country's sides prevailed at the UEFA European Women's U17 Championship in both 2010 and 2011, plus the women's U19 finals of 2004.
This was the big-achieving background from which Luis Aragonés's class of 2008, and Vicente del Bosque's 2010 and 2012 vintages, emerged. Players such as David Villa, Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres not only helped La Roja to their unprecedented trophy treble; they also wrote a cluster of new performance records for the Spanish national team.
Spain have been prominent performers on the futsal pitch as well. FIFA Futsal World Cup winners in 2000 and 2004, the national side reigned supreme in the UEFA European Futsal Championships of 1996, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012. Club teams have done likewise in the UEFA Futsal Cup where Playas de Castellón FS twice, Interviú Madrid on three occasions, and Barcelona have been European champions twice.
The Spanish game's richest legacy, however, may have been in the European Champion Clubs' Cup and UEFA Champions League. At the time of writing, Real Madrid's ten triumphs in the competition remain unparalleled. Madrid dominated the tournament's first five editions. Barcelona have landed the coveted trophy four times themselves, three in recent years. Madrid, like Sevilla FC and Valencia CF, have also brought the UEFA Cup to Spain. Barcelona, Club Atlético de Madrid, Valencia and Real Zaragoza carried off the European Cup Winners' Cup and Atlético won two of the first three editions of the UEFA Europa League, with Sevilla following suit in 2014.
Such exploits have continued to raise the profile of the Liga clubs and a domestic championship that rates among Europe's finest. From grassroots to the top of the tree, Spanish football has never had it so good.
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