By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain were the underachievers of international football until the tactical nous of Luis Aragones turned them into world beaters and sparked a golden era that has brought the national team unprecedented success.
The much-traveled Aragones, who died on Saturday aged 75, was a popular choice when he became the oldest Spain coach in 2004 after the team failed to get past the group stage at that year's European Championship.
Aragones had previously turned down the job on several occasions but this time he took on the role armed with a wealth of knowledge gained over almost 50 years in the business.
He was most closely associated with Atletico Madrid as both a player and coach. An attacking midfielder he was renowned for his piercing free-kicks, a technique he honed on the training ground.
During the 1960s and early 1970s he helped Atletico to three league titles and hit 125 goals, including a free-kick in the 1974 European Cup final which they lost to Bayern Munich.
Less than a year later he hung up his playing boots to become coach of Atletico and it was the start of a journeyman career typified by highs and lows and constant rifts.
He was often portrayed as a coach who was difficult to deal with but more accurately he was not afraid to speak his mind and cared little about how people viewed him.
It was during the 1980s that Aragones' highly strung personality coupled with his dogged work ethic got the better of him and he left Real Betis, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona with stress-related issues.
After taking charge of Spain in 2004, success was initially hard to come by and Aragones was roundly criticised following the team's last 16 exit at 2006 World Cup.
Many felt his views were out of date and that he lacked the character to be national coach. He was also widely condemned for making racist comments about Thierry Henry to Jose Antonio Reyes during a Spain training session in 2004.
Aragones, who considered resigning in 2006, decided that the only way to take the team forward was to get rid of old guard players such as Raul and Michel Salgado and introduce the quick-passing football that was bringing success at Barcelona.
The lowest point came when they were beaten 3-2 by Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in a Euro 2008 qualifier but they learned from that setback to finish on top of their qualifying group.
There was the usual mood of pessimism among the Spanish public Euro 2008 kicked off but once the competition started, Aragones plotted their route to the final where Fernando Torres scored the only goal against Germany.
Aragones decided to stand down after the tournament but his tactics and the way he restored belief among the players led Spain to further triumphs at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar) nL3N0L607V