Their dominance is now but just a memory as World Cup exit heralds the end of an era
Tick, tock, went the clock as Spain’s time came to a stop. Dominance lasts long, but never longer than the natural order of things. At some point, everything — whether good or bad, special or mediocre, extraordinary or not, revolutionary or evolutionary — comes to an end. For Spain, this is it!
And what a ride it was. Since mid-2008, no national team has so dominated international football. It could be that in terms of success, this generation of players is the greatest group ever in football history. Three major international tournaments were conquered with style, identity and philosophy.
The whole world watched in awe. For six years, there was no answer to that passing game — those fluid motions, those probing punches that asphyxiated opponents into submission. Football technique rose to a whole new level and possession statistics went through the roof. For almost half a decade, Spain dominated each and every game they went into; dominated almost every tournament they entered.
But now, they have been brought down to their knees, their asteroid has crashed, their meteorite burnt out. What was revolutionary has now become the norm, what was evolutionary has now been by-passed by an evolution of its own. There is no longer surprise to how Spain play — no longer any fear.
First,the aura of invincibility went, then the sense of vulnerability crept in and now eventual fatality has followed.
In the end, they have gone out with a whimper. It began with such a bang six years ago at Euro 2008. Its elan was able to sustain it through the World Cup four years ago and at Euro 2012. But now, those joyous highs have come to a crushing low with a Group Stage exit at Brazil 2014. Those punishing moments they inflicted on others have now been inflicted on them. They used to rule the world — now they will watch as someone else takes their crown.
It was in the end a very easy dethronement. It all started with Italy showing a glimpse of it in the Group Stages of Euro 2012. By starting with a back three, it allowed wing-backs to push up against a narrow Spanish configuration, while at the same time maintaining an equal number of midfielders in the middle to match up against the host of technically gifted Spanish midfielders. The same almost worked again in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup last year. Italy came close twice.
Similarly, England displayed compactness plus a willingness to take chances in a friendly at Wembley in November 2011, while Brazil added pace and power to physique to out-muscle and outfight the Spaniards in the Confederations Cup Final.
This combination of factors has seen the Netherlands and Chile reign supreme over the former superiors. Pace, power, physique and compactness, coupled with three at the back, a packed midfield and two strikers to attack a soft defence has seen Spain being rampantly embarrassed.
That said however, it would be unfair not to consider the factors that worked against Spain. Natural time sees wear and tear creep in and physical levels eventually fall. Age has caught up — a 34 year old Xavi Hernandez is not the same as the 28 year old who so dominated games years ago. Injuries have meant Carles Puyol can no longer put in those brave-heart performances of yesteryears. Iker Casillas’ form has dipped and he as captain has sunk with his ship. So too have many of Spain’s players. The hunger and desire that was there before the haul of trophies became impossible to sustain once nearly everything was won.
And while there should never be any excuse for these eventualities of transition, it was difficult to have made those wholesale changes in foresight with the same clarity with which they now appear in hindsight. Still, it was thought that the individual quality of a great squad was enough to see them through at least the first round. Nobody expected it would be so damning in the first two games.
Add bad luck — injuries to Thiago Alcantara who would have provided freshness and Jesus Navas who would have provided the much needed directness — and you have a Spanish team that was setup to lose without even knowing it.
But at the height of it, they descended into self-parody. An ageing tiger, fiercely trying to resist the end by over-multiplying, over-complicating its previous methods. Sometimes, the passing was too much, other times, the belief in the identity and philosophy carried on for longer than it should have. In the process, they were worked out. The game moved on. From being far ahead, they were caught, they stood still, and thus have now been left behind.
As Arrigo Sachi, once said, “As long as humanity exists, something new will come along. Otherwise, football dies.”
Not to say however that tiki-taka (or the passing philosophy) is in itself dead. World football’s attitude has completely changed and passing has become an important aspect of the game. The triumph of the pass is an idea that still remains — albeit not as the only marquee mode of ensuring victory at the highest level of football. What Spain’s collapse indicates however is that its protagonists for the past six years have reached their natural course.
Maybe, the next generation of Spanish players will start a new dominance and create other all-conquering passing pyramids. Or maybe they will not, and this phase has truly come to a definite end. But for this current generation of talented players, the end has surely come. They graced football pitches with such elegance and raised the game to new heights. They touched the stars and they became stars themselves. But now, the stars have dimmed out. Now, it is their turn to take their bow. A blessed generation is at its journey’s end.
In the words of T.S. Eliot in his poem, The Hollow Men,
“This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper,”
Spain’s world of dominance has come to an end. The previous pass masters have passed out.