Charlize Theron’s humorless Meredith Vickers has precious few scenes to shine in Prometheus. In one of them she gets to hiss “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable”. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie, and one that hammers home just how transient and fleeting sitting pretty at the top really is.
Spain, current defending champions of the Euro by virtue of having won it in 2008 and also FIFA World Cup winners in 2010, might want to draw consolation from that. Or spiral further into depression. Either way, it’s almost perceivable that Spain’s time at the top of the summit is drawing to a close. It’s one of those things you can feel is in the air. And not in the grass, as Spain suggests.
A lot of it has to do with the end of the aura that surrounded Spanish football. Engineered in the dens of the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu, their splendidly aesthetic style of playing football saw them vault past the more established names in Europe and South America as they rewrote the coaching manuals of the game.
With the triumphs came the aura, as is natural but Spain’s was more enduring than other champions at the turn of the millennium. The Spanish had not only prised the world’s silverware, but had also given the world a lesson in football with their stratospheric possession percentages and fleet footedness.
But then Guus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho came along and figured that defending like cowards, might not be a bad thing as long as you did it with gusto and with a plan. As Chelsea did in 2009, and Inter Milan did a year later to those great exponents of Spanish footballing prowess FC Barcelona, teams have figured and will continue to figure out ways to beat the Spaniards. Like so many others before them, the Spanish have contributed to their own downfall.
Spain’s insistence on playing their quick short-passing tiki taka style, meant the tall, physically imposing footballer was surplus to their requirements. Like the Neanderthal made way for the smaller, more adept homo sapien, the big bulky footballer made way for the artists. Unfortunately, Spain convinced of the permanence of their style never predicted that the pendulum might swing back to the more physical style favored in continental Europe. It did, and the Spanish were caught with their pants down. Their ranks were decimated as far as physicality was concerned. Their approach to the game meant their strikers didn’t need to be like Drogba, or Andy Carroll. A midfielder could step up and do the job, thank you very much.
Del Bosque is the prime architect and maintainer of the bridge that connects the Catalans of Barcelona and the Castillians of Real Madrid into a single Spanish outfit, after the two constituent sides have spent the better part of the past season(s) fighting each other. And it’s clear that even he’s bought so completely into the philosophy that he rolled out a team comprising 4 defenders, and 6 midfielders against Italy, a culture that taught the rest of the world how to defend like your lives depended on it.
To blame Spain’s draw and surprisingly ordinary performance against Italy entirely on Del Bosque’s strategy is harsh on the man. A couple of years ago, a similar Spanish line-up would’ve torn Italy to shreds. That is as much a statement about how well the Spaniards were playing then, as it is a reminder to how awful the Italians were back then. But that’s digressing.
Barcelona’s and Madrid’s inability to win the Champions League this season, when they were both by far the most powerful sides in the tournament, has taken off the aura, that sheen and that inevitable feeling about a Spanish side’s eventual victory.
That aura had more often than not helped cow the opposition down into submission even before the first whistle has been blown. Teams were certain even before they took to the field, that they would see little of the ball. Making them either all the more desperate to lunge at scraps or merely grateful they only conceded a couple of goals by the time the 90 minutes were up. By the end of the ordeal, that famed death by a thousand cuts at the hands of the Iberians, teams were just glad to go back to their hotels.
Taking into account that Hiddink and Mourinho had impressive squads to put out, Chelsea’s recent triumph must surely then have been the death knell for tiki taka. The Blues held Barcelona off, admittedly with some measure of luck this season, with an aging side and one that was deservedly languishing at 6th spot in the Premier League. The Spaniards – Barcelona especially – have always insisted that their style was characteristic of their clubs and independent of the player.
Which makes it all the more ironic then that there is an antidote for the tiki taka, and it too is not dependent on the player. A decent side with the commitment to stay the course, and the patience to let the Spaniards hold the chunk of possession, does have a shot at beating the greatest club(s) in the world, and by extension the national team of Spain.
The Spaniards also have the headache of having to make do without a Messi, who makes Barcelona seem all the more potent. Instead they have a David Villa who’s gone MIA, and a Fernando Torres who’s now managed to let just about everyone down. So a toothless Spanish side up front, should make parking the bus a whole lot easier then.
Except the notoriously defensive Italians didn’t exactly park the bus in their game. This wasn’t an exposition of the famed catenaccio that stopped Spain dead in their tracks. This was something else. Italy took the game to Spain in midfield, holding possession and their own against the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas. For considerable portions of the game, Italy looked the more confident side.
And that’s what should worry Spain the most. Not the possibility that teams know how to park the bus when it matters, and not the fact their forwards lack the incisive quality Messi brings Barcelona. It’s that dawning realization, that suddenly nobody is afraid of them anymore.