Spain aren’t the first side to win the World Cup and then fall at the first hurdle the following tournament. In 1998 France won the competition yet in 2002 they crashed out in a group containing Denmark, Senegal and Uruguay and in 2006 Italy won the World Cup and they too fell at the group stages to a group comprising of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand. In comparison to Italy’s and France’s groups, Spain’s exit should not seem so devastating as both Chile and the Netherlands are far superior to any side aforementioned. However, due to Spain’s dominance on the international stage for the past 6 years, this can only be classed as the major surprise of the tournament so far. But why did it happen? Who’s to blame? And what consequences will arise from this stunning exit?
The answer to the first question is relatively simple: they became too predictable. Great teams come and go but they by and large arrive because they adopt a new, fresh and exciting way to play the game and they usually fade as other sides eventually figure out how to stop them and so the cycle continues. The problem for Spain is that they were unwilling to believe that they had been stopped despite evidence of a decline at club level. A new dominant force is at work in top-level European football; it is less about possession but more about pacey, direct attacking play – finding the quickest way to goal.
Immediately the question arises: Real Madrid won the Champions’ League this year, surely we’re wrong to suggest that the Spanish have lost their way?
But they have, and the reason as to why is two-fold. First, the national side is far more in the mold of Barcelona than Real Madrid, and whilst there are important Real Madrid players in the Spanish side, the players that carry the most influence to the Spanish identity at national level are Xavi and Iniesta, both from Barcelona. Moreover, none of the players that are at the hub of Real Madrid’s identity are Spanish. The most important players in their side are Ronaldo, Di Maria, Bale and Benzema, who are all focused on springing fast attacks that completely overwhelm an opposition, just as happened in their match against Bayern Munich in this year’s Champions’ League. Barcelona, on the other hand, have endured a torrid campaign by their lofty standards so it was perhaps curious that Spain were so insistent in sticking by philosophy that was being so brutally exposed in the biggest games on the European stage.
Which leads us nicely to our next question: who’s to blame? Whilst the team has been littered with errors from usually-reliable performers such as Casillas, Xavi and Xabi Alonso, the buck has to stop with the manager Vicente Del Bosque whose days are surely numbered. The attitude that has emanated from the camp before the tournament, and even after defeat to the Netherlands, was that they will live or die by their methods and won’t adopt their approach. One could view this as noble or dignified that they are “trying to play the right way” but I personally view it as naïve and wholly mystifying in the modern age of football. Even the greatest sides must surely have a plan B when things aren’t going their way or some method of changing it up slightly to catch their opponents off guard. Alas, Spain would rather die by plan A – and die they did. For this attitude, there can only be one to blame: Del Bosque.
Finally, one must be curious at the consequences that will arise from this disastrous campaign. First and foremost, it can be imagined that Del Bosque will be removed from his post. He will be forever heralded in Spain, and deservedly so, but it is time for him and Spain to move on. It is also likely that Xavi will be removed from the national team and replaced by the exciting Koke of athletico Madrid or even Thiago Alacantra of Bayern Munich who unfortunately missed the tournament through injury. But people may question whether Spain will really change it up that much and, in perfect honesty; it is far too early to say. If Spain are to make the most of this incredible crop of players at their disposal for years to come then they may have to adopt a new approach. If they can combine their incredible passing ability with a faster tempo and direct approach then there is no reason why this side can’t return to the top of world football instantaneously. On this occasion, however, the Spanish were killed by their arrogance and naivety when the rest of the footballing world had moved on. It’s up to them to catch up.