On Thursday the people of Spain celebrate the coronation of King Felipe VI. Just hours after they mourned the passing of Spain’s domination of world football. The long time monarch, King Juan Carlos, abdicated at midnight on Wednesday. Just over an hour after the Spanish football team had done likewise.
That Spain have not gone on to win another World Cup is no surprise to me or anyone living in the country. That an era of domination in world football has come to an end was foreseen by those who regularly watch the game at club and international level. It was as predictable in Spain as crooked banks, corrupt politicians, high unemployment and another holiday coming to a town near you soon.
It wasn’t a question of if Spain would be knocked out of the World Cup. It was only a question of when. But it is the manner of their exit from the World Cup in Brazil that has angered Spanish football fans. They went timidly into the shadows.
From the first minute until the last of their game against Chile, the Spanish players looked disinterested, disunited and distant from each other.
That is not to take anything away from the performance of Chile. They smelt blood. They looked at a wounded animal and went in for the kill. Something the outgoing king of Spain knows all about.
But Spain didn’t put up a fight and that has annoyed my neighbours, the Spanish press and seasoned watchers of the game in the country.
They went out of the tournament in a feeble fashion. No craft, few skills, no pace and – as has been the case for years – no plan B. Other countries sussed how to play Spain some time ago. Go at them. Don’t let them settle on the ball. Play at a fast pace. Hassle them. Niggle them. They don’t like it up ’em, the Spanish.
That an era of a fine football team has come to an end is beyond dispute. The classiest midfielder I have watched on a regular basis for many a year, Xavi, owes Spain or Barcelona nothing. He has been a joy to watch. To my mind Xavi has single handedly exemplified how the game should be played. A class act on and off the field.
Xavi will now go off to the desert for one last big pay day. No Barcelona fan begrudges him that. Barça have sold Cesc Fabregas, who was never going to be good enough to fill the boots of Xavi. But why Fabregas did not figure in the team to play Chile will remain a mystery. Fabregas should have been in the team.So often at times like this people call for the head of the manager. I have no doubt that Vincente Del Bosque will also abdicate. He is a decent, honourable man who should be applauded for his achievements in charge. I hope Spanish football fans remember that.
But his team selection against Chile was odd. His loyalty to a goalkeeper lacking in confidence was a bold move that left even Real Madrid supporters shaking their heads. Iker Casillas was once the best goalkeeper in the world. But his confidence has been shot at for many months, arguably longer. In part Casillas blames Jose Mourinho. The goalie did not get on with his then manager at Real Madrid. Mourinho dropped him with increasing regularity.
But the truth is that Casillas is not as young as he once was. While few players in the Spanish team last night were over 30, too many of them are past their best before date.
Xabi Alonso, a man I admire enormously as a footballer and human being, looked like a man possessed in the first half against Chile. Possessed by someone who had never learned how to pass the ball. What on earth was going on there? Alonso, rattled by his own inept performance, lost his cool and picked up a yellow card. He was substituted before he saw red.
Sergio Ramos had a couple of chances to score but, again, looked a shadow of the man who so inspired Real Madrid to Champions League glory.
That Sergio Busquets missed an easy chance to score at a crucial stage of the game came as less of a surprise. As the saying goes (though not in Spain), Busquets couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.
There is an argument that Del Bosque dropped the wrong players and stayed faithful, or gave a chance to some not up to the task required. And I would agree.
But I doubt the outcome would have been any different. The body language of the Spanish players at the World Cup told me that they would be leaving the stage sooner rather than later. Not that I, or anyone I know, thought it would be so early.
Spain went into the game against Chile like lambs to the slaughter. No, that’s unfair. I am willing to bet lambs put up more of a fight.
For all he was not the greatest defender to ever play football, do not underestimate how much Carlos Puyol has been missed by both Barcelona and the national team. He was an inspiring captain for both. Who in the Spanish team last night was ‘doing a Puyol’, shaking their fist at colleagues, giving encouraging applause and demanding more? The answer came none.
It is the end of an era. I moved to Spain in 2005. When the national team were playing I would go to the local bars and wonder why they were not showing the Spain match, be it a competitive qualifying game or a friendly. For this ‘guiri’ to be asking to watch Spain play football caused much amusement. “They are rubbish, why would you want to watch them when you can watch this?” That’s what the bar owner would say to me. He switched the TV to the bullfight and the local men would enter a trance like state.
Back then I never saw anyone wearing a shirt of the national Spanish team. They sported only their club colours.
For the following two to three years nothing changed. Not until Euro 2008 when, suddenly, the fans began to believe. The night they won that tournament they did so courtesy of a goal by a man they had previously mocked. Fernando Torres scored the winner against Germany. The streets of my then home city, Granada, were awash with people wearing red shirts and climbing fountains to celebrate.
It was the beginning of the era that has now ended. I loved watching Spain play football these past six years. Some deluded individuals called their brand of football “boring.” I could not disagree more.
Football was meant to be a passing game. No team in the world passed the ball better than the Spanish side that went on to win the World Cup in 2010.
I may live long enough to see La Roja come again. I may not.
But, make no mistake, there are some seriously gifted young Spanish players waiting in the wings. It will take years for them to mature and some will no doubt go abroad to play their club football. But, ten years from now, Spain could be winning tournaments once more.
But not the Spain of Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas and Villa.
That particular king is dead. Long live the king!