Time for Spain to move on after disastrous World Cup campaign
JUN 18, 2014 8:20p ET
Spain seemed to crash out of the 2014 World Cup in slow motion. From the moment Dutch striker Robin van Persie launched himself to acrobatically head an equalizer in Friday's opening Group B match, the reigning World Cup champions were on the ropes.
As the Netherlands fired in four more goals in the second half of that game in Salvador, and now again as Chile opened up a decisive two-goal lead before the break at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, there seemed to be nothing anybody could do stop the inevitable.
Vicente del Bosque's side were eliminated from this year's competition, and the first World Cup holders to be knocked out after just two games of the next tournament on Wednesday.
For Spanish fans, it was very difficult to take. The team that had thrilled them while winning the last three international tournaments was now completely unrecognizable. Most of the names were the same, but the difference in performance, confidence, attitude and ability was like night and day.
In winning Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Spain conceded a total of six goals in all 19 games. In just two outings in Brazil, it gave up seven. A defense built upon the team's ability to hold possession, tire out opponents and control the game from start to finish flat out crumbled. Instead, opponents were running straight through a static defense to score at will.
At the other end of the pitch, the situation was just as bad. Del Bosque's big plan for this tournament was to nationalize Brazil-born Diego Costa, but the Atletico Madrid flopped horribly, with no shots on target in his 126 minutes of action. Costa's main contribution was to win a debatable penalty against the Netherlands -- which was converted by Xabi Alonso. This means the reigning champions did not score from open play as they crashed out of the competition.
It is worth saying that -- like the Dutch in the first game -- Chile played really well. The South Americans stuck to their all-action kamikaze style and took their chances really well, going 2-0 up by taking their first two real opportunities to score. But it is also true that its three man backline was made up of two midfielders who were relegated last season -- Francisco Silva at Osasuna and Gary Medel at Cardiff -- and a centerback released by mediocre Championship side Nottingham Forest (Gonzalo Jara). Even still Jorge Sampaoli's super-organized and super-motivated team were just better in every way and won each personal battle against their higher-profile opponents.
Once again, individual mistakes contributed hugely to Spain's downfall; Alonso's surrender of possession lead directly to Chile's opener from Edu Vargas; Iker Casillas was at fault again for Charles Aranguiz's second just before halftime; and just as against the Dutch such errors by key leaders sucked all confidence out of the rest of the team.
It is easy to say on reflection, but such a downfall had been coming, as it does for all great champions. Last year's 3-0 hammering by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final was a warning, which was mostly ignored. Even more telling was the decline of the great Barcelona side, on whose club success the real greatness of the national team was based.
Looked at now, the leaking on the eve of the match that Xavi Hernandez was set to leave Barca to join Qatari club Al Arabi was a harbinger. Xavi, now 34, was powerless to change things as the Netherlands took control in the opener. He watched the 90 minutes against Chile from the bench. At his best, the Catalan playmaker could completely dominate games for both club and country with his passing. But not any more. The 134 times capped Xavi has now surely played his last international game.
La Roja's all-time record goalscorer David Villa (58 goals in 95 caps) will probably get a last-hurrah in Monday's dead group game against Australia. Casillas (156 caps), Alonso (113) and Fernando Torres (110) should also call it a day. Del Bosque said immediately after the game that there was no need to make any hasty decisions, but a dignified exit for the veteran coach would make sense.
When the dust clears del Bosque's successor -- and no names immediately come to mind -- will have the basis of an excellent side to work with. Andres Iniesta has just turned 30 and Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Jordi Alba, Pedro Rodriguez, Juan Mata and David Silva are all still in their mid or late 20s and hugely experienced.
New blood is now also badly needed, however. Manchester United's David de Gea, Bayern Munich's Thiago Alcantara, Real Madrid's Isco and Dani Carvajal, Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu and Atletico Madrid's Koke are all young, hungry and with experience of winning at club and underage international level. All should now be given a chance to grow as part of a new team in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.
We have no excuses," said del Bosque after the match. "We were too slow, timid from the start today. It's a sad day for all of the players and time to think about the future. We played two games, and were not able to be better than Holland or Chile, so we are out of the World Cup. We thought we had very good chance, good players. But the reality is different."
Casillas added: "It is hard to explain what happened. I ask for forgiveness. We did our best and did not want to disappoint people. There is no option but to look into the future, think about the next game and do our best. Holland and Chile were better than Spain."
There will be time for all that. For fans and journalists who have followed this La Roja side through recent years, the immediate feeling was sadness mixed with appreciation for the joy we've been given. But now it really is time to move on.