In the end, everybody with a million-and-one darts to aim at Spain, at Vicente Del Bosque and at a particular footballing-philosophy could feel smug. But it is too easy to damn someone ‘a toro pasado’, as the Spanish say to convey that sense of hindsight bringing cheap vindication, and we come off sounding like prophets of the past. But Spain’s ill-fated Brazilian campaign, representing the indigestible nadir of a two-year decline, is more a lesson in the human dimension of football than an obituary for a model of play.
Sifting through the debris of Salvador and Rio, it was Del Bosque’s squad call-up and his insistence in sticking with the pantheon of hardened, if not severely-aged band of winners laden with every club and international award imaginable – that seemed the most accessible remnant over which to grieve and to agonise. Even coming into the tournament, people otherwise optimistic about Spain’s prospects expressed reservations about: the absence of young, less-predictable talent (Isco); the odd contextual player who might offer Spain a Plan B or at least an added dimension (notably the Navas-Llorente two-in-one package, and Navas in-and-of himself as a defensive relief measure by providing the out ball); and also, somewhat concentrically with the previous two factors, there was the lack of penetration in a squad that was long on ball-retention but short on rupture (save Pedro and, maybe at a stretch, Juanfran).
On reflection, the call-up seems to be where all of Spain’s undoings can be viewed in crystalised form as all the sticks which might rain down upon Del Bosque are to be found there: seniority versus youth, meritocracy against establishment, ball-retainers versus space-exploiters and a long et cetera. But even assuming he brought along our preferred alternatives, who’s to say Del Bosque would’ve started them in either of the two games to date? Surely he would’ve started with more or less the same side.
It’s fair to assume that Del Bosque’s posture was born of technical appraisal and not sentiment. He patently believed that this group, as long as it continued to be built around a certain core, was best-served by being offered a familiar template within which to play, and living in its own skin. And that was tantamount to Casillas + Pique + Ramos + the Alonso-Busquets tandem + Xavi and the ball-accumulating Silva & Iniesta. By extension, that meant that the notion of heading into a tournament with one of those key pieces being swapped for a Koke, a Navas, a Javi Martínez or even a deeper, more central-to-everything Fàbregas, would have been to upset the ecosystem, that wonderful biosphere which, Del Bosque felt, had been cultivated by these great players and to some degree had enveloped them to the point where the one was inextricable from the other.
To many an outsider such a mentality may well appear intransigent but this Spain side – and particularly its spine, which was never going to change despite whatever peripheral squad alternatives might have presented themselves – operated on the basis of status-recognition, which was the fuel for its ambition. After all, when other nations’ squads are younger, fitter, stronger and hungrier than yours … what else have you got to fall back on? Title-winning experience may be no guarantee of continued success, but it is not the flimsiest of suppositions to bank your approach on. Why not emphasise your pedigree? What if, in the process of trying to address those other more delicate factors, you end up undermining the confidence that the “stars-above-the badge” mystique imbues in its bearers?
As time goes on, we may become more privy to what exactly was the emotional and psychological condition of the team as they headed to Brazil, to what extent they felt sufficiently prepared to compete in defense of their title. It is prudent, however, to reason that Vicente Del Bosque had his finger on the pulse of his charges. To a lay, ignorant person such as myself, this notion of betting the house on the old guard as a reward for past achievements struck me as a rather risk-laden approach to disputing a new tournament. But I wasn’t the one who needed convincing of its merits by Del Bosque! Perhaps those players felt that, ceteris paribus, they could keep on winning by remaining true to themselves.
Once we accept the validity of Del Bosque’s approach (i.e. that he had sound footballing reasons as a justification for it; whether or not it was likely to prosper is besides the point), we then try to view the unfolding of the tournament through such a lens. Was Xavi really the worst offender in the somewhat commendable first half played against Holland in Salvador? When the silver-lining of those 45 minutes was that Spain at least managed to tame the initial ferocity of the Dutch pressing and retain the ball (sterile possession, yes, but for Spain this is simply synonymous with losing the ball in areas where they feel least vulnerable, and for this read “defending well”)? This is not to suggest that Xavi was still able to impose himself on the game. Merely that Spain still knew what they could pull off, and Xavi knew better than most. Curiously it was the two more robust midfielders Alonso and Busquets, whom one would normally expect to counteract the physicality of the opponent in a match like this, who looked less secure. The addition of Koke in place of Iniesta or Silva might have added further steel, but Del Bosque was always going to consider this tantamount to handing over his trusted arsenal for weapons of his enemy’s choosing.
Within this logic, then, it becomes especially hard to understand the coach’s selection for the fatal tie with Chile, specifically with regard to his benching of Piqué and Xavi.
Many will say that it too little. I want to venture the opposite view: that perhaps it was too much change. If the rationale was to offer a symbolic change that would ripple throughout the team, it appeared to have that very effect – though not with healthy consequences. It would be one thing were Del Bosque to have rung in these changes in between tournaments, in friendlies or even during qualification games with a view to engineering a degree of transformation in Spain’s play. It may also have had the ancillary effect of assuaging the concerns of those critics who were calling for more meritocracy so as to thwart complacency among the elders and foment hunger among those players knocking on the door.
But to usher in such changes mid-tournament? In a crunch game where your team’s confidence is already reeling from the humiliation suffered in Salvador? One can imagine Del Bosque, prior to the tournament: “Look, guys, some of you may be getting on a bit, others among you may have recently gone through tough times in your clubs, and doubtless there are opponents awaiting you who think you’re finished, you’re arrogant and they can’t wait to knock you off your perch, but whenever they start to bite and put you under the cosh, just remember: be true to yourselves and to the style that made you what you are: champions. Champions who have and will overcome any adversity. Just keep doing what you know best”
So, even allowing for my fiction, did the benching of Xavi and Piqué end up undermining the above mantra when Spain took to the field at the Maracanã? Granted, from early on Casillas transmitted insecurity (and how could he have not, following his hour of ignominy against Holland), which seemed to infect the whole Spanish backline. So for Del Bosque to further perform what seemed surgery in the defence must have sent a message, however unintended to his players: something is wrong, we’re vulnerable and we need to address it. But hang on, didn’t the mantra hold that when up against it, the players should seek comfort in familiarity? If so, maybe stripping this team of its familiarity, its self-identification, only served to make it more nervous still. Having placed so much faith in the tried and trusted, what font of inspiration were Spain now supposed to draw upon ?
Again, forgive me for what is very much toro pasado, but fate in the unwanted form of Spain’s elimination has conspired to afford Del Bosque (or a successor) the chance, nay the mandate, to effect large-scale personnel changes in La Furia. And although this all bookends rather neatly, what with the talk of nature running its course and cycles ending and such, there will always be for me the lingering sensation that this elimination didn’t have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That it needn’t have been an seismic event pitting the embattled forces of a distinct (and much-caricatured) ideology against its foes in some Stalingrad.
And really, is the future for Spain so bleak? Casting an eye to four years from now and Russia 2018, the continuing progress of talents who are playing at clubs in or around Champions’ League level such as David De Gea, Dani Carvajal and Íñigo Martínez, Iturraspe, Thiago, Koke, Ilarramendi and Isco, Gerard Deulofeu and Jesé, allied to the still relative youth of the seasoned Sergio Busquets, Javi Martínez and Cesc Fàbregas suggest reasons to trust in a swathe of footballers blessed enough to have been marinated in the ore of recent Spanish success.
Granted, among these footballers some will have been inculcated more intensely than others (particularly the Barça players) in the catechesis of the all-conquering style. Variations to even the most unyielding of footballing styles tend to occur anyway, if only by the osmosis that seeps through owing to the practitioners themselves and their unique characteristics. As much as they are often repositories, or products, of a footballing philosophy, the inverse can also true: that players end up diluting, modifying and, in the case of Xavi Hernández, even defining a style. Still, the notion that Spain, bereft of carbon-copy inheritors to its trademark players, could return to the international wilderness years of yesteryear seems implausible.
Rory Smith of The Times put it better than most when he ventured that “What we’ve seen over the last two years isn’t the end of a style, it’s the end of a group of players’ ability to play it well.”
I wouldn’t bet against seeing a group of Spanish players, with quite a few familiar names, playing what they know best, playing it well, and competing for all prizes in the coming years.