Title defence the toughest part

Just how tough it is to defend your territory in the sporting sphere?

Ask Spain. Having played a brand of football that was at once attractive and effective to win the world title in 2010, the team from Europe was a pale shadow of its glorious self four years later, bowing out in the first round in Brazil.

Of course, Spain aren’t the first to experience the reality-check that comes free with any title a sportsperson or a team wins. Italy four years previously and France in 2002 are in that list in World Cup history, making one wonder about the challenges faced by a champion.

Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 are the only teams to have defended their World Cup crowns. The tournament was in its infancy when the Italians claimed their second straight title with Mussolini’s sword hanging over their heads. Brazil on the other hand, were a classy outfit on their way to becoming the greatest national team of all time.

 With their triumph in 1970, following successes in 1958 and 1962, they achieved their goal, showing what a confluence of talent backed by solid preparation and driven by sheer desire can achieve. In a team game like football, isolated sparks from an individual cannot bring sustained success – it requires coming together of many factors, the right alignment of stars, so to say.

How else could you explain one team possessing tonnes of talent oozing from individuals like Pele, Gerson, Rivelino, Tostao and Jairzinho, each one of them playing at their prime? No rivals could come anywhere close to those marvels let alone match their brilliance. An artisan like Dunga, pilloried for the lack of style in his Brazil team of 2010, might say that the art one praised in the 1970 team was only in the highlights packages but in reality, every match played by that eleven carried the stamp of the Beautiful Game. Their understanding was almost telepathic as they conquered rival after rival, with Pele as the conductor of that glorious orchestra.

Perhaps a parallel can be drawn in the world of arts, with an example from the Hindi movie era of the 1950s and 1960s. Acknowledged as the best period of Hindi film music, it marked the coming together of great singers like Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle with music directors like Naushad, Roshan, Shankar-Jaikishan, Madan Mohan and O P Nayyar. Magic was the inevitable result. Timing, indeed, is everything.

Unlike in team sports, defending the crown seems a touch easier in individual sports, where one doesn’t have to work in the same wavelength as another person in your team, or play at the same level as your team-mate. Hard work, desire and motivation required to string together a successful run are no less though. Bjorn Borg’s great run at the French Open and Wimbledon stands out as an example while Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were equally brilliant in a more recent era.

In track and field, the feats of an Al Oerter or a Carl Lewis at the Olympic Games still evoke awe, not just for the mastery they displayed over their disciplines but for sheer longevity. Oerter’s four discus throw gold medals and Lewis’ four long jump titles in a row also showed how they managed to peak in time for the biggest stage, every four years. Usain Bolt, the giant presence in track and field in our times, perhaps captured their thoughts perfectly when he explained his motivation to keep running, keep chasing gold medals even after his three-gold haul at the Beijing Games of 2008.

“My goal is to become a legend, and for that, I need to defend my titles,” the big Jamaican, holder of multiple world records and world championship gold medals, had stressed time and again, before going on to fulfil his goals at London 2012, sweeping the 100, 200 and 4x100 gold medals for the second time.

So does Spain’s failure to defend the World Cup leave them short of greatness? A look at their record gives us the answer. Their 2010 World Cup victory was sandwiched between triumphs at the European championships in 2008 and 2012, a unique feat that evoked applause worldwide. For six years they maintained their top form, entertaining us and conquering all opposition before them. With the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Casillas at the top of their game, Spain opened a new path in the world of football. Pace, panache and precision-passing raised to a different plane – that was La Furia Roja. It is just that when the World Cup came around again in their careers, the enchanting entertainers who made it possible had started the journey downhill.

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