Thursday, June 19, 2014

The reign of Spain ends in pain

The 18th of June 2014 will go down in Spanish history, that is for sure.

King Juan Carlos signed the papers to step down as monarch after 39 years on the throne and the national team were clinically excised from the World Cup, marking the definitive end of a golden age which began when Luis Aragones’ team won Euro 2008 espousing a glorious new creed called tiki-taka.

Even El Pais newspaper was unsure which end of empire deserved higher billing on its front page, but there is no doubt which abdication will be the talk of the town tomorrow. 

The streets here in North-West Spain are eerily quiet. At 11pm sharp someone turned off the usual volume. The rows of outdoor cafes either emptied or were suddenly drained of their normal chatter and vivacity which make this country a home of real nightlife.

The reason was La Roja's sudden death in Brazil, hit by a left-right Dutch-Chilean combination. Two strikes and they’re out, the champs are going home.

It's an early night for a nation which normally stays up too late and the post-mortem has begun in earnest. Two hours after the final whistle signalled the death-knell of Spanish hopes, one all-male TV talk show was still hollering away into the night about what went wrong.  

There are the usual suspects of course but all the culprits are too numerous to mention. Vicente Del Bosque keeping faith with old friends, Iker Casillas' and Sergio Ramos' loss of form and Diego Costa's incompatibility are nevertheless the immediate targets.

But you could easily add the injury to Thiago Alcantara, leaving Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and David Villa languishing on the bench, the Brazilian grass, the heat and humidity, victory fatigue, FIFA's screwed-up rankings which dropped the unseeded Dutch into their group and the fact Madrid's players had landed jaded from the Champions League final.

Spain were lethargic and were unable to up the tempo when required or match the explosiveness of the Chilean or Dutch attacks. Even when forcing the other Roja's custodian Claudio Bravo into action in the second half, they never looked like pulling back the half-time deficit.

The 5-1 mauling by the Netherlands should have been proof enough that Spain were old news, but in reality the writing was on the wall last summer when Del Bosque's team were out-run by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.

Of course no empire can last forever and beyond the eternal and necessary optimism of any football supporter, there was a feeling here in Spain before the finals that this was a cup too far. 

I told you so may be a glib reaction to defeat, but I at least thought something looked amiss in the curiously half-hearted displays of red and yellow flags around this town. I also felt a faint desperation at the back of my mind watching old faces in new adverts from the myriad sponsors on television and in the press. Yes we can they grinned, no you can't I thought.

How proud really is Cruzcampo to be the beer of a dreadful team? The official sorrow-drowner more like. And how many despondent fans will cut themselves tomorrow morning with Gillette, Spain's official razor?

What is really sad though is that tiki-taka, that delightfully innovative style of play, had already left the building before the World Cup began. And its great wizard Xavi did not even take the field tonight while Andres Iniesta failed to conjure up his magic of old.

Yet at 0-2 down, just when Spain needed a return to La Furia Roja of yesteryear, nothing happened as the tank was empty. Chile were faster, fitter and fresher and the crown was falling fast off the world champions' head.

Costa has never looked the part for Spain and leaves his native country Brazil with his held held low. La Roja's blunt forward line was of no help to the cause. Seven corners to Chile's one, 16 shots to eight and 63% of the ball mean nothing when you never looked like scoring.

And so the fire of a world-beating national team goes out, a light which paradoxically began to burn brightly at the same time the Spanish nation fell into a dark fiscal and social crisis with a flat-lining economy and large-scale emigration.

Now the great team is dead, while the country struggles on in hope of better days.

Spain has lost a king and a dynasty tonight.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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