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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spain Has Learned to Win Ugly

APLuis Aragones
NEUSTIFT, Austria -- Russia coach Guus Hiddink is known for doing great things with small teams. Luis Aragones' job is even harder: showing Spain deserves the place it craves among the world's football elite.

The "Red Fury" always struggles to achieve results in major tournaments despite a wealth of talent, but Aragones, 69, has started to scrub off Spain's label of chronic underachievers at the European Championship.

This time, Spain is playing with flair when it wants to and grit when it needs to, showing that the "Wise Man" has learned some bitter lessons from the 2006 World Cup, when the team's confidence fizzled against a more experienced France.

"One of our small errors in the World Cup was that we didn't know how to protect our lead," Aragones said, recalling how Spain went ahead 1-0 only to lose to the French 3-1 in the second round. "It's not as if they were a superior team. Spain was superior, yet we lost."

Fearing a repeat, Aragones applied a more cautious strategy in Sunday's quarterfinal match at Euro 2008, when Spain beat Italy in a penalty shootout 4-2 following a scoreless draw after extra time.

Instead of attacking at full speed, Spain held back to avoid exposing itself to counterattacks. The result may have been dull for spectators, but it showed Spain finally has learned that you don't have to play beautiful to win.

Aragones had also made sure Spain was well-prepared for a tight encounter with Italy. Two days before the match, the Spaniards practiced spot kicks at their base camp in Neustift as the white-haired Aragones watched from the sidelines, peering over the rim of his glasses.

Sunday's victory was Spain's first in the quarterfinals since 1984, its first over Italy in a competitive match and Aragones' 37th in 52 games. Still, the often gruff coach saw many things Spain could have done better.

"Sometimes we lost the ball because we didn't play with the accuracy that we normally do," Aragones said after the match.

Later, he explained why he wasn't joining the rest of the country in celebrations.

"I'm not an emotional man," Aragones said. "I've got the tranquility of having done this for many years. I don't get beaten down when we lose, and I don't go through the clouds when we win."

He seems to have transmitted that down-to-earth attitude to the players, who quickly turned their thoughts to Thursday's semifinal against Russia rather than dwelling on finally having overcome the quarterfinal curse.

Born in Madrid, Aragones played for Atletico Madrid, where he began coaching in 1975. He was in charge of seven more clubs, including FC Barcelona and Valencia, for a total of 757 league games.

Soon after his 2004 appointment as Spain coach, Aragones made a racist remark about Arsenal striker Thierry Henry during a training session, which led Spain's football federation to fine him 3,000 euros ($3,760).

He has also had tensions with his own players, including Raul Gonzalez, Spain's all-time leading scorer who was dropped from the squad in 2006.

Last week, Aragones was seen arguing with Sergio Ramos during a training session, a day after telling a news conference that he was unhappy with the Real Madrid fullback's behavior off the field.

Still, Aragones appears to be becoming increasingly popular among the players as well as the Spanish media, with whom he's had a testy relationship. The win over Italy sparked calls for him to revoke his decision to step down after the tournament.

Aragones responded that he had already made up his mind and received full backing from the players.

"I think it's up to him," midfielder Xavi Hernandez said Tuesday. "He's said publicly that he's going. If he goes or stays we'll always have him in our hearts because he's a coach that has made an impact on us all."