Before the glory days, Spanish fans often had very little to cheer about. The side the modern supporter now associates with international excellence had won just one international title before their Euro 2008 triumph in Vienna. That Nations Cup win in 1964 was a high watermark for 20th-century Spanish football as the country’s favourite sport fell into a firm decline following that night at the Bernabéu.
Aside from Real Madrid’s European Cup win in 1966, Spanish teams largely struggled in Europe and it would be 1974 before a one reached another European final and 1992 before they finished on the winning side.
Off the pitch was just as gloomy and the country continued to trundle through Franco’s dictatorship until the tyrannical general died in 1975. No sooner had Spanish citizens regained their democratic rights, the military tried to take them away again, staging a coup in 1981. Recession, extremism and terrorism had the nation gripped in an iron fist of discontent and fear. Spain needed a release and, on 21 December 1983, the national team shocked both their homeland and the rest of Europe by providing their people with just that.
Although this story begins with a late kick-off at the Benito Villamarín, it actually starts in July 1982 with La Roja’s biggest embarrassment. Having failed to convince in the first group stage, Spain were finally dumped out of their own World Cup after a 0-0 draw to England at the Bernabéu.
It had been just the fourth international tournament Spain had qualified for since 1964. In that stretch, they had missed five tournaments in a row and were dumped out in the group stages of the ones they did. Hopes had been high for the hosts, however the fans were once again left disappointed with another premature exit.
Spain coach José Santamaría was sacked and replaced by former Real Madrid boss, Miguel Muñoz. The capital-born manager had won a record nine league titles and two European Cups before leaving Los Blancos in 1974, enjoying spells with clubs across Spain before being appointed national team boss. He promised in his debut press conference to bring Spain’s fury back; empty words until the final game of his first set of qualifiers.
Muñoz’s storied managerial career at home showed in his squad selections for the Euro 84 qualifiers, with his team featuring players from Real Madrid to Sporting Gijón. Spain were drawn in a group with the Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland and Malta, opening their campaign with a 1-0 win over Iceland. A draw against Ireland preceded consecutive wins that put Spain narrowly in the driving seat heading into the final two group games.
Disaster struck midway through the second half of their away game against the Netherlands, with the scores tied at 1-1, Ruud Gullit’s brilliance decided the match. A 5-0 Dutch win over Malta left the Spanish needing to beat the Maltese by 11 goals or more to qualify for the finals in France.
Malta had been the group’s cannon fodder, but putting 11 goals past them would be no easy task. Though they had conceded eight to Ireland during the campaign, Malta had never conceded nine or more in their 36-year history. The hosts also weren’t prolific, scoring 12 in total preceding this game. The reverse fixture, in which Malta were denied a famous draw through a late Spanish winner, clearly hadn’t left much of an impression on Malta’s starting goalkeeper, John Bonello, who proclaimed before the match: “Spain couldn’t even score 11 goals against a team of children.”
Over 19,000 hopefuls piled into the Benito Villamarín to see if their boys could pull off the biggest of shocks, but a half-time score of 3-1 had burst any dwindling optimism. The Spanish had dominated proceedings, creating plenty of chances to score: Juan Antonio Señor had an early penalty saved, La Roja hit the post twice, had a goal cleared off the line, and missed a plethora of good chances.
To compile their miserable luck, Malta’s goal came from their first attack of the game, a freak deflection off a defender. Santillana didn’t even celebrate his second and third goals, perhaps reflecting attitudes come the half-time break. The Spanish would need to score a goal every five minutes if they were to make up the nine-goal deficit and reach the finals.
We will never be too sure what took place in the home dressing room. “He told us to go out there and show our unity and love for the national team and put on a show for the fans,” were the words of Muñoz according to Poli Rincón, while the Maltese claim that the Spanish doped up during the break. Whatever happened, it undoubtedly produced one of the most remarkable halves of football the game has ever seen.
Spain got the second half off to a perfect start, Rincón scoring a fabulous solo effort to muted celebrations amongst the crowd in Seville. It would take another nine minutes for him to get his second, this time from a poor pass-back to the goalkeeper. Antonio Maceda’s first goal was well greeted and his quickfire second meant it was game on again. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, Rincón grabbed his fourth within 60 seconds of Spain’s seventh.
Three goals in five minutes were followed by another 11 minutes of scrapping, before a curling cross from Rafael Gordillo landed at the feet of Santillana. Nine, ten and 11 followed in quick successions as Malta finally ceded to persistent Spanish pressure. With ten minutes to go, it seemed only a matter of who would be the one to score the famous 12th. Fittingly, it was penalty villain Señor whose half volley in the 83rd-minute was probably the pick of the dozen.
The celebrations were as loud as a capacity crowd at the Benito Villamarín and the referee had to halt the game twice in the final seven minutes to clear pitch invaders. When the full-time whistle was finally blown, hundreds of Spain fans poured from the stands to embrace their heroes.
Muñoz, who paced the technical area for much of the second half, was engulfed by his technical staff, the former Real captain claiming the secret to his success was that he was lucky: “I have a big flower growing out of my backside.” However, anyone who watched that late-December game will claim that far more than luck was on display that faithful Solstice night.
The Spanish would almost go all the way in France, only denied by the Platini-inspired hosts in the final. A 24-year wait separated Spain’s next final, meaning a generation of Spaniards grew up with that Malta win firmly etched into their memories as their greatest moment.
Philosophers will no doubt ponder over the impact that result had on the Spanish footballing psych in the intervening years. Ultimately, that Spain side will go down in the history books as a shining light during a difficult and uncertain period in the nation’s history.
By Kristofer McCormack @K_mc06