There are declines and then there are abrupt deaths. Spain being outscored 7-1 and eliminated from the 2014 World Cup group stage qualifies as the latter. This was an embarrassing, unceremonious end to what may have been the best national team run in soccer history.
Spain won three consecutive major tournaments – Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012 – which was unprecedented. Their dominance during them – a 16-1-2 record, and a 32-6 goal margin – was all but absolute. The Barcelona core of the team also won four Primera Liga titles and two Champions Leagues trophies from 2008 to 2013. The Beckenbauer/Muller run with Germany and Bayern Munich from 1972 to 1976 is the only one comparable.
Why did it end now?
Sustaining international excellence is hard. There is a constant tug of war between continuity and adaptation. The more success a team has the harder it is to make (or to even see) necessary changes. There is the fickleness of soccer and tournament play. Players age and, having success at club and International level, rack up mileage. That’s before you get to the trouble of motivating players who have done it all to keep hitting that prime level of focus and dedication.
There’s a reason three of the past four World Cup champions (and three of the past four European champions) crashed out in the group stage at the next World Cup. Winning one tournament makes you a legend. Winning three is absurd.
In retrospect, phasing Xavi out after Euro 2012 would have been a wise decision. After that tournament, Xavi’s decline was hypothetical. The past season at club level it has been manifest. He was no longer in a position to carry Spain. As they showed in the second match against Chile, the Spanish had no conception of a way to play without him.
The same goes for Iker Casillas. He was once among the world’s best goalkeepers. But, for the past two seasons, he hasn’t been the starter at Real Madrid. He looked unsure in the Champions League Final. That form extended into this tournament, where his flubs were responsible for multiple goals. We were one more Iker bobble GIF away from breaking out the thesaurus.
It’s easier on paper to remove Xavi (most influential Barca player) and Casillas (most influential Real Madrid player) than in practice. But necessary decisions are seldom easy. A national team coach should have been prepared to make them.
Some of Spain’s problems were uncontrollable. The Spanish had no ready replacement for Carlos Puyol at center back. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué did not work well together. Playing an unfit Piqué in the first match was a bad option. Playing an out-of-form Javi Martinez there in the second was not that much better of one.
Some of Spain’s problems were quite controllable. Spain signed up Diego Costa and started him up front both matches. He had the clear best season among Spanish strikers. But, he had no experience with Spain (or Barcelona/Real Madrid) playing with the rest of the team. He was also a major fitness concern. It was not surprising he seemed out of sync. That was a position where Spain had options. David Villa and (gulp) Fernando Torres were two with ample experience of meshing well. There was also Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente who Del Bosque left at home to bring Torres.
Spain were not in their best form heading to Brazil. Facing the Netherlands and Chile, two teams that look threats to go deep in Brazil, they never found it. All great runs end at some point, unless you are coached by Gregg Popovich or Sir Alex Ferguson. It is testament to the teams they played, above anything else, that this Spain one ended so spectacularly.
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