Prior to the start of Spain’s World Cup title defense last week, I said that this tournament would be La Roja’s last hurrah. Odds were that they would fail to repeat their World Cup crown and claim their record fourth successive major title. Instead, they would either finish second in a very difficult group and crash out in the second round to hosts Brazil, or win the group and lose in the semifinals or final.
Clearly, I understated the level of Spain’s woes. A 5–1 demolition at the hands of 2010 runners-up Netherlands in the opener was followed up by an almost equally comprehensive 2–0 loss to Chile. And just like that, Spain is toast. The exit after just two games is reported to be the fastest elimination for a World Cup title-holder. (Four other champions have been eliminated in the first round, but never after the first two games.)
Commenting on today’s match, ESPN’s Ian Darke called Spain “a sad parody of their usual selves.” The team turned the ball over in terrible positions. The goalkeeping of the legendary Iker Casillas was wretched for the second consecutive game. And they failed to convert on multiple opportunities in front of goal.
Chile, a dark horse for this tournament who were basically playing before a home crowd at Rio’s Maracanã stadium, played with the vigor of champions. Olés rained down after the team went ahead, and they were not for Spain. The Chileans came out in great form, winning two chances within the first two minutes of the game.
Spain, meanwhile, looked limp. Passing efficiency has been the cornerstone of the team’s recent dynasty and its beautiful tiki-taka style of play. But the first Chile goal resulted from a terrible giveaway by Xabi Alonso. The midfielder, who had been a stalwart in La Roja’s three previous title campaigns, at the last World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 Euros, played poorly throughout and was removed after the start of the second half.
The second goal was caused by a mistake from Alonso’s Real Madrid teammate Casillas, who punched an Alexis Sánchez free kick back into the middle of the field to give Charles Aránguiz an open look at goal. The Chilean midfielder coolly delivered.
The Spaniards were not nearly as efficient in front of goal. They missed 19 shots with nine on target and failed to convert multiple one-on-one opportunities with the keeper in front of goal. In the first half, Brazilian-born Atlético Madrid striker Diego Costa put an open shot into the side netting. In the second half, when a gorgeous Costa bicycle kick pass set up Sergio Busquets right in front of goal, the Barcelona player couldn’t convert a simple tap-in.
The second half was academic, with Chile nearly scoring a third goal and Spain continuing to flail about in the final third. The rest of La Roja’s tournament, with a final match next week against Australia, will be academic as well.
Why did Spain lose? Tired players and tired tactics. The team is the eighth-oldest at the tournament, and their stars Xavi Hernandez and Casillas are 34 and 33 respectively. Casillas’ difficulties have already been described. Xavi, meanwhile, was benched against Chile after disappearing for most of the game against the Netherlands. Without Xavi on the field—the old Xavi, not the Xavi who was ineffectual against the Dutch—the team didn’t have its traditional midfield quarterback. The 30-year-old Andres Iniesta, Spain’s biggest current star and a legend in his own right, has not been able to fill the role of midfield leader in Xavi’s absence.
Spain’s tactical issues have been roiling the sport for at least the last two years, since tiki-taka originators Barcelona were crushed 7-0 over two semifinal Champions League legs against Bayern Munich. The problems with Spain’s brand of total possession and passing soccer were only reaffirmed when the mind behind the tactical scheme, Pep Guardiola, saw his Bayern Munich side obliterated by counter-attacking Real Madrid in this year’s Champions League. (Guardiola took over Bayern after that 7-0 trouncing of Barcelona.)
The only question for Spain now is whether they will recover quickly or revert to their historic role as the world’s great underachievers. Jimmy Burns, the author of La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World, describes this sad past perfectly:
The history of soccer is littered with stories of teams being destroyed by the politics of the locker room. Spanish clubs have not been immune to this, nor have Spanish national squads. But particularly during the Franco years it was the politics behind the locker room that gave Spanish soccer its particular dynamic, not always in a positive sense. At the club level, it fueled an intensive, competitive rivalry between two of the world’s most powerful clubs, while failing to reproduce an agreed-upon pattern of play at the national level that could guarantee success.
Not only were Xavi and Casillas the team’s two leaders on the field before age caught up with them. The Barcelona star and Real Madrid talisman also held the national team together in recent years when club feuds threatened to tear them apart. Without these two men around to keep the peace going forward, it’s not certain who will step into that role.
Still, Spanish soccer has an array of young talent, and one of the best youth systems in the world both nationally and in the form of Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy. But there will probably never be another Spanish team like the one that just fizzled out of the World Cup.
Perhaps this is the most telling statistic: After having conceded just six goals combined in their previous three tournament triumphs, Spain let through seven in just two games in the 2014 World Cup. That shows how difficult it has been for this Spanish side in the toughest group of this tournament. But let’s not forget the other side of that statistic: the astonishing level La Roja reached at its height. The Spanish teams of those three titles, and especially the two European championships, always looked like inevitable winners. They would outlast nearly every opponent, maintaining possession as a defensive tactic as much as an offensive one, and waiting to find the tiniest holes in the opposing defense before ruthlessly finishing in front of goal.
It’s sad to think that this team is no more. But the cycle of sports is always turning, and soccer will soon enough have another great dynasty. We just hope that soccer’s next great team plays half as beautifully as Spain did from 2008 to 2014.