Spain's UEFA EURO 2008 and 2010 FIFA World Cup successes were built on an obsession with possession, yet opponents were beginning to learn how to handle them. As they sought a third consecutive international title in 2012, La Roja needed a new weapon. Step forward Jordi Alba, then 23 and about to sign for Barcelona after a revelation season in the Liga with Valencia.
"I signed for Barcelona, I scored in the European Championship final and we won, so it was one of the biggest weeks of my life," the left-back remembered fondly.
Spain were a goal up and dominating the final in Kyiv thanks to David Silva's header, but with half-time approaching Alba struck a blow Italy could never recover from. "We were passing it around and I got it in my own half and gave it to Xavi," he recalled. "We weren't really playing with any strikers so I just ran forward without thinking about it."
Run is an understatement. Alba rocketed upfield as soon as the ball left his foot, compelling Xavi Hernández to return the pass. "Look how fast Jordi Alba is going," exclaimed the commentator on Spanish TV, and Xavi also noticed, slipping the ball between Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli for the full-back to control and curl past Gianluigi Buffon.
Growing up just 15 minutes from the Camp Nou, Alba had supported Barcelona as a boy, with Hristo Stoichkov his hero. He entered the club's academy but was released aged 15, deemed too slight. "I took it well," he insisted. "I never doubted I'd make it and I didn't let it get me down. I needed to play football, and if that was for Barça then great, but all I wanted was to play."
It was at local side Cornellà that he broke through, subsequently being snapped up by Valencia and forcing his way into Unai Emery's side after a loan stay with Tarragona. Crucially, the Basque coach had the foresight to turn the winger into a left-back. "Emery changed my life without a doubt – he's the coach who had the biggest impact on me," Alba said. "There was a lot of criticism of both me and him when he put me at full-back, but he stuck with it. And it paid off."
Barcelona quickly took note; after his heroics in Poland and Ukraine, he returned to rejoin the Camp Nou club. A self-confessed family man whose favourite pastime is sleeping, Alba still lives in his home town of L'Hospitalet, shunning the Catalan coast where many team-mates reside so he can be close to his loved ones. And unlike most players, he has little interest in cars. While his colleagues cruise into training in Audis, Alba gets a lift from his father.
Yet on the pitch he remains one of the fastest around, his Spain peers calling him 'The Motorbike'. He should be revving up as Spain bid to win a record fourth UEFA European Championship this summer in France.
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