What's Next for Spain Soccer?
It’s easy to get out the ol’ Jump to Conclusions Mat after the first round of World Cup matches, only to learn that, oh yeah, it’s just one game. In that sense, you could be forgiven for thinking that Spain might right the ship after their 5-1 pasting at the hands of the Netherlands. After all, Spain lost their opener in 2010 to Switzerland - Switzerland! - before going on to win the tournament. Spain, with their collective coolness and steady leadership could surely get out of this mess, right?
Their win in South Africa was Spain’s first World Cup in history, shedding the Dan Marino label of international football - the greatest to never win the big one. That was sandwiched between two Euro titles, spanning six years of dominance that saw Spain become the first country in history to win three major international tournaments back-to-back-to-back.
During their unprecedented trophy run, it wasn’t just what Spain won, but how they won it. They waltzed through the World Cup in 2010, winning most of their games 1-0, not because they couldn’t have scored more - they could have - but because they knew their opponents didn’t stand a chance if they didn’t have the ball. In the Euro 2012, they averaged 65% of possession while completing 88% of their passes. Masters of organized keep-away, you couldn’t take the ball from them much less put in the back of their net.
“Tiki-taka” - the name for their short passing, possession-dominating, high-pressure style of play - became a household phrase, and managers the world over tried to replicate it, quickly learning that it takes a special caliber of player to make it work. If Spanish fans had kept up with the tradition of yelling “ole!” for every completed pass, they would have needed a suitcase full of Luden’s for their sore throats.
Though it’s a chicken-egg argument as to who came first, Spain or Barcelona, Barca too played tiki-taka football and were as successful at club level as Spain was at the international level. Between 2008 and 2013, Barca won four La Liga titles, winning two Champions League trophies and the Copa Del Rey twice. Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, and Gerard Pique were all pivotal members of Barca and the Spanish national team during this trophy haul and it’s no coincidence that both teams were utterly dominant during those six years.
Spain’s dominance was exemplified in the Maracana, the mostly Brazilian crowd jeering their every mistake, then kicking them after they went down. Their ironic cheers when Spain managed to string a few passes together - tika-mocka, you might say - only shows just how sweet it was for fans of the traditional world soccer power to see Spain yanked off their throne.
All good things must come to an end, and after their 2-0 defeat to Chile on Tuesday, La Furia Roja’s most successful generation of footballers was left with nothing but the bitter taste of an early, embarrassing World Cup exit. Chile now has a 3.36% chance of winning it all, up from 1.96% at the start of the tournament.
You could point to any number of reasons for Spain’s swift fall from grace - an aging, lethargic midfield, a ragtag collection of strikers that included a less than fit, square-peg-in-round-hole Brazilian defector, a central defense that lacked a true leader, and a keeper who had less confidence than a pimply 15-year old at freshman orientation.
Then there’s the fatigue, both short-term and long-term. The grueling season in La Liga that went down to the very last week, and the Champions League campaign that saw Real and Atletico playing competitive games until late May left Spain’s entire squad with heavy legs.
And of course there was psychological fatigue. No ideas, no game plan, no strategy in any sport is immune to being found out, and with dozens hours of footage to scout, it was inevitable that tiki-taka would go stale, particularly given the condition of Spain’s roster. There is no great equalizer like a fired-up team and after being top of the heap for so many years, Spain had a target on their chest. You can’t fault them for letting complacency seep in and teams playing them were always going to bring their best.
The cracks in the armor started to show last summer, when Spain got manhandled in the Confederations’ Cup final. Playing against a fired-up Brazil squad, it was understandable, you could argue. After all, it was merely a dress rehearsal for what would be the 2014 title defense. Right?
Barcelona’s poor 2013-14 season - poor by their standards anyway - was another ominous bell weather for Spain’s World Cup. There were certainly a number of Madridistas that played a big part in Spain’s Euro-World Cup-Euro trifecta, but the spine of the team was Barca through and through. Puyol and Pique, the master and apprentice in defense. Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets: the metronome, the maestro, and the asshole security guard who will kick you in the teeth if you try to bum rush the stage.
For the first time in the better part of a decade, there was a frailty to Barcelona. Xavi’s time-keeping wasn’t quite as steady. Iniesta’s bow needed a bit more rosin. Sergio Busquets looked weary from too many days on tour. And while he had learned a thing or two from the old man, without Puyol’s yelling orders and organizing the back line, Pique looked very much still a student.
After the painful loss to the Dutch, Vicente Del Bosque, the man who led the team to their many titles, made a few token changes, but considering the vast experience and enormous success of his squad, he more or less had to dance with who brought him. He made a gutsy move, benching Xavi for the first time since Euro 2008 (when he was rested in a dead rubber against Greece) and swapped out Gerard Pique for the energetic and immensely talented Javi Martinez.
The biggest decision was a move he didn’t make, keeping Iker Casillas in goal. The legendary Real Madrid keeper, whose recent play would not look out of place if set to the music of “Entrance of the Gladiators”, made yet another error and probably should have gotten the hook at half time.
The moves proved not enough, and it’s unlikely any lineup changes would have had much impact. Spain was beaten before they stepped foot on the field against Chile, looking absolutely drained, physically and emotionally. They were out of energy and out of ideas. Frustration mounted, Pedro slamming the ball into the turf after fruitlessly chasing down a teammate’s overhit pass. Xabi Alonso picked up a yellow card for a cynical tackle before getting mercifully subbed off at half. When the ref blew the game-ending whistle, it was as if a sense of relief washed over the entire squad and their fans as well. What many had feared leading up to the tournament had happened. The most successful international team is finally done and now it’s time to move on.
So what do they do now? Xavi, Xabi, and Casillas will probably retire from international football, preserving their club careers for a few more seasons. Del Bosque will move on as well, allowing fresh ideas to be implemented while rebuilding the team around promising youngsters Javi Martinez, Koke, Thiago, and Isco. The process will be a long, hard road and it is unlikely that they will return to the pinnacle of world football any time soon. As much talent as they have coming through the pipelines, players like Xavi and Iniesta, Puyol and Casillas, with their ability to become greater than the sum of their parts is the type of synergy you only see once every couple of generations.
One can only hope that their poor showing on the world’s biggest stage does not tarnish their legacy, as they are undoubtedly one of the all-time greats in international football. At their peak, this Spanish team could compete with any in history - Platini’s France, Maradona’s Argentina, even Pele’s Brazil. Despite their greatness, however, they will always be an underrated team in history, lacking any true “star” but rather possessing a collection of players, underrated themselves, that dominated an era. Keep-away and ten yard passes just aren’t as sexy as dribbling through an entire team or diving headers.
This truly historic team has one final swan song, against an entertaining Australia team in a game that means nothing for either side. It is perhaps the last chance to see a few of these legendary players line up for La Roja. Let’s hope they put on one last display of keep-away at its finest.