MADRID (AP) — Luis Aragones, the former Spain coach who shaped the team's rise from perennial underachiever to global powerhouse with a long-awaited title at the 2008 European Championship, has died. He was 75.
The Spanish football federation announced the death early Saturday, saying Aragones died at a Madrid hospital. He had been battling leukemia. Federation president Angel Maria Villar said Aragones would be remembered as "very special" — both for his contributions to Spanish football and as a person.
"With him we have lived the beginning of an extraordinary phase in football as well as for Spanish society," Villar said. "This has been a painful dawn for our football." Aragones had a successful playing career as a sharpshooting international forward who earned 11 caps for Spain, and then spent the rest of his life as a much-traveled coach.
However, he will mostly be remembered for what happened on June 29, 2008, when his team beat Germany 1-0 in Vienna to claim its first major title in 44 years. "Luis Aragones changed the history of Spanish football," Spain captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. "And for that we will always be thankful."
The Euro 2008 triumph was the culmination of Aragones' four-year reign as Spain coach, having taken over a team that for the last 20 years had earned a reputation for always coming up short in major tournaments.
But Aragones instilled a new sense of belief in his players, even after losing to France in the second round of the 2006 World Cup. He also made the team adopt the quick-passing "tiki-taka" style of football made famous by Barcelona, and which his players came close to perfecting at Euro 2008.
Led by Barcelona midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta — and the goalscoring of David Villa — Spain went undefeated through the tournament, but needed a penalty shootout against Italy to advance from the quarterfinals.
While Aragones stepped down after the tournament, the team went on to win its first World Cup two years later and then added an unprecedented third straight major title at Euro 2012 under his successor Vicente del Bosque.
"Without a doubt, our current run of success is a result of his legacy," Del Bosque said on Saturday, after paying his respects to Aragones' family. "He had a long history of coaching experience and he had a special appreciation for the game."
But Aragones' time in charge wasn't without controversy. He made a racist slur about France striker Thierry Henry — who is black — during a training session in October, 2004, and followed that remark with an outburst about England's colonial past. His comments were believed to have prompted ugly racist chants directed at England's black players during a friendly against Spain in Madrid.
The Spanish Football Federation refused to bow to pressure to fire Aragones, although it fined him 3,000 euros, a punishment which many felt was too lenient. Denying he was a racist, Aragones explained that his comment about Henry was an attempt to motivate forward Jose Antonio Reyes, and he received important backing from several black players he had coached previously.
In February, 2007, Aragones won a legal appeal against the Spanish Committee for Sporting Discipline's ruling that his behavior could have fostered "violent, racist or xenophobic acts." Spanish media also often complained about his grouchy demeanor and had regularly called for his dismissal during the two years before the team's triumph. There was another uproar toward the end of 2006 when he dropped the national team's all-time leading scorer and captain, Real Madrid's Raul Gonzalez, arguing that he was past his prime.
It proved a masterstroke. The team embarked on a 22-game unbeaten run which culminated with the 2008 title, making Aragones the oldest coach to win a European Championship title. Despite the victory, the Spanish federation made no attempt to persuade him to extend his contract and five days later he moved abroad for the first time to take charge of Turkish club Fenerbahce, a couple of weeks before his 70th birthday.
"I'm leaving because there wasn't more done for me to stay," Aragones said at the time. His playing career began 43 years earlier, when Aragones joined Atletico Madrid. He scored 123 times in 265 games for the team — the second highest in its history — and helped the club win three Spanish league titles and two Copa del Reys. It also reached the 1974 European Cup final, where it lost to Bayern Munich in a replay.
Aragones, nicknamed "The Sage of Hortaleza" in reference to the Madrid suburb of his birth, was then appointed as Atletico coach and led the team to the 1975 World Club Championship, the 1976 Copa del Rey and the 1977 league title.
He coached Atletico on a total of five occasions and he had two spells each at Mallorca and Real Betis. He was also in charge of Barcelona, Espanyol, Sevilla, Valencia and Oviedo in a career total of 757 games, a Spanish league record.
Aragones is survived by his wife Pepa, five children and 11 grandchildren. ___= Harold Heckle and Stephen Mackey contributed to this report.