As elegant in defeat as in victory, Spain is out of the Brazil World Cup in the first round after a 2-0 defeat to Chile in Rio’s Maracaná Stadium on Wednesday. Aware of the legacy it leaves behind, it is also frustrated at suffering such an ignominious end to its reign as world champion. There will doubtless be much soul searching over what went so horribly wrong in Brazil. Below, a few suggestions.
-Last season’s model. Injuries to Thiago Alcântara and Jesé deprived coach Vicente del Bosque of two players who might have injected some new blood into the team, something Gerard Piqué, Pedro and Sergio Busquets did at the South Africa World Cup in 2010, and Jordi Alba at the 2012 European Championships. Del Bosque also left Isco and Iturraspe on the bench, instead opting for veterans such as Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Piqué, despite their recent poor form, which should have been grounds to undertake a thorough overhaul.
-Lack of hunger. At the friendly against Equatorial Guinea in November, Del Bosque told his side: “The only one I can see who’s hungry is Koke.” The team’s performance in its opening two games, which it lost 5-1 to the Netherlands and 2-0 to Chile, exposed this all too clearly, as Xabi Alonso admitted after last night’s drubbing. Repeated success softens even the hungriest.
The recent poor form of Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Piqué should have been grounds for a thorough overhaul
-Complacency. Most of Spain’s sports journalists agreed that the side looked good in training, that the players were in tip-top shape, and that the second half of the game against the Netherlands was just bad luck. But the reality was that this was a tired side, lacking any spark, and perhaps unconsciously hoping that its supremacy would carry it forward or intimidate its rivals.
-Stuck in its ways. The side played the same style and took the same approach in its second game against Chile as it had in its first against the Netherlands. This had worked, it must be said, in South Africa, when the team lost to Switzerland in its opening match, and again in Kiev in 2012. But the low-key approach, with just two minor changes following the nightmare against the Netherlands, did not work this time. The team probably needed shock therapy.
-Fallen idols. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas and midfielder Xavi are living legends in Spanish soccer, but both were toppled in Brazil. Casillas seemed distracted: perhaps two unsettled seasons at Real Madrid, during which he spent a lot of time on the bench, had taken their toll, while Xavi looked tired.
-A stranger in the midst. Spanish-Brazilian forward Diego Costa never looked comfortable and failed to find his place, perhaps a reflection of his lack of finesse and physical approach to the game. Del Bosque insisted on playing him in both games, perhaps feeling a debt to a man who had turned his back on his native side. In the absence of David Villa, now too old, and Torres, largely irrelevant, the side scored only once, and from the penalty spot. With Fernando Llorente, Álvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado touching 30, there don’t seem to be too many candidates out there to take over.
- A midfield under suspicion. This was where Spain was strongest during its reign as world champion. There were almost too many top-level candidates for the job, and many great players were left out (Gabi, Iturraspe, Ander Herrera, Dani Parejo…). But this time round, the men tasked with dominating possession and allowing the strikers to do their job failed. Andrés Iniesta and David Silva, two virtuosos, gave away 23 balls each in the two games, and didn’t seem to know what to do when they had possession. Alonso was beset by physical problems, and Busquets was a shadow of his usual self.
- Defense, what defense? Every time the ball entered the Spanish half of the pitch, it seemed to set off panic among the defense, while Casillas looked like he was out of his league, making schoolboy errors that cost goals. Not even Sergio Ramos, the recently proclaimed champion of European soccer, could keep things under control. The two full backs, César Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba, could only stand by and watch, and failed to initiate any attacks.
Spain’s players now have plenty of time until Monday, when they face Australia, to think about what went wrong. The problem, is, even if they do, it’s too late.