An inevitable fall from grace

An inevitable fall from grace

An inevitable fall from grace

The end of the Spanish reign in soccer felt like seeing an old friend being mocked in the public stockade. Spain’s team had most of the old, familiar faces, but they had little vigor left.

Players who once caressed the ball so beautifully were bludgeoned at this World Cup. First it was the vengeful Dutch, who waited four years to hit back at them after their loss in the 2010 final, and then it was Chile, whose younger, hungrier team smelled vulnerability and exploited it to the fullest in finishing off Spain.

It has happened before. Defending champions falling in the first round is part of the World Cup. Italy fell that way in 1950, and again in 2010. Brazil lost their trophy in the first phase of 1966, as did France in 2002.

What happened to France is mirrored in the dilemma now facing Spain. In 2002, Real Madrid won the Champions League in May, principally because of a majestic performance from Zinédine Zidane.

But in June, Zidane, the France captain who barely had time to adjust to a different climate halfway around the world, pulled a muscle as soon as he arrived in South Korea. He was a bystander until the third game, when he played as a patched-up parody of himself as France suffered its premature exit.

A dozen years later, Real Madrid finally won back the European crown. The players from Real and Atlético Madrid went straight to the World Cup just a few days after the final in late May. One again, the lack of rest, recuperation and rehearsal contributed heavily to the players’ undoing.

You might look upon that as an excuse for professional athletes who should be ready for anything. You can, if you like, think Spanish tiki-taka is too prissy and results in too few goals. Or you might even question whether Spain’s players became complacent.

 I can tell you that they cared, perhaps even too much.

Barcelona and Real Madrid players formed the core of this Spanish national team. When I traveled in April with the Barcelona team for its Copa del Rey final against Real, it was obvious even then that the players were tired and hurt by the recent deaths of Tito Vilanova, the former Barcelona coach, and Luis Aragonés, the man who built Spain to be European champion in 2008.

Xavi Hernàndez, Andrés Iniesta and the rest were reluctant to admit that time was running out for them. What great champions ever do know when the peak is no longer attainable?

Xavi, in particular, had sacrificed himself in 2010, when he finished the season for Barcelona with a small hole in his thigh muscle, but he received injections and took personal risks so he could be the conductor of the Spanish passing game at the World Cup in South Africa.

On Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro, Coach Vicente del Bosque opted to leave Xavi and other veterans on the bench. Yet del Bosque, whose charges won seven games for every loss, was accused of being too faithful to the old-timers.

The coach is today questioning himself. He ducks nothing. He used the words “timid” and “slow” to describe his own team. He will, nevertheless, return to Madrid chastened by accusations that he (a) tinkered too much and (b) did not change quickly or ruthlessly enough.

The crux of all this is when exactly does a coach change a winning team? Del Bosque could see that Spain was unlikely to retain the World Cup with the same meagre total of eight goals in seven games, even though that sufficed in 2010.

Brazil, thank goodness, is the antithesis to that defence-riddled tournament.

Del Bosque did tinker, pushing for a quickened naturalisation process that allowed Atlético Madrid’s belligerent striker, Diego Costa, to play for Spain instead of Brazil, where he was born. Costa, another player who limped toward the bitter end of the La Liga season, was not on the same wavelength as the tiki-taka merchants of Spain.

Del Bosque started Costa against both the Netherlands and Chile. Costa played an hour in each game, but as the main striker he managed just five shots, none on target. Was that Costa’s fault? Was it the fault of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and the rest who didn’t adjust to a different kind of striker playing in front of them?

Or should we all just make del Bosque the scapegoat for a team that ran out of gas, out of self-confidence and out of leadership? Even that was a choice the coach made, because he trusted Iker Casillas, a goalkeeper who never previously let down his country in more than 150 games, to lead the team, even though Casillas was another ageing athlete who was dropped as the regular starter (at least in league play) by his club, Real Madrid, more than a year ago.

The inquisition on Spain’s failure will be as futile as it will be loud and long.

Spain, which had won nothing in the global game for 44 years, turned things around this century and conquered everybody at the youth level, then continued to grab the top prizes at the European and world levels for nearly a decade. And now it has hit a wall.

Inevitably, some critics are saying that Pep Guardiola saw all this coming when he quit as Barcelona coach two years ago. Guardiola said he had lost his pep, that he was exhausted and needed a break in New York before he returned last year to coach Bayern Munich, the German club.

It is just as likely that he saw the end coming for the Barça players who he had pushed joyously, but remorselessly, to trophy after tiki-taka trophy. It looks pretty, but it demands the utmost intensity in movement and concentration.

Guardiola’s Barcelona had done it for four years. Spain had run with it for twice that long. The blame game is a knee-jerk reaction.

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