By Sagnik Banerjee
Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist
HalaEspana, Go Selecao (nickname for the Brazilian football team), Argentina this time, Germany deserves it the most … only a few of the many battle cries that started doing the rounds on the social networking circuits a few days back & some of them are still going strong. The selfies with the jerseys on had begun to show up, the boyfriends had started explaining their girlfriends that for the next one month night calls were not possible, the stern Chelsea – Man U loyalists’ heated exchanges, the Barca-Real Madrid rivalry, all of it had taken a backseat as the stage was set for The FIFA World cup 2014, the biggest sporting event in the globe to begin. And this time, it was being held in the land of “Jogo Bonito” (“beautiful game”), the Brazuca was set to be kicked for the first time on 12th June.
We, the Spain supporters, the defending champions, the rulers of the football world for the past six years, were hoping to continue the domination and this time round bury the flag firmly& deep on the soil of capital of world football& hence end all doubts about being the greatest football side that ever existed- the “La Roja”& justify the great Pele’s faith on this Spain side, his favourites to win the current edition of World cup. The play-offs were over& we had done exceptionally well. We were positive, we were optimistic, we had faith the Spanish flag would fly high and the Iker Casillas-led team would conquer the world again with their breath-taking skills& the most valuable weapon in their arsenal- tiki-taka. But somewhere in our mind, we were a bit concerned too. An iota of doubt crawled up in our minds owing to the events that had unfolded in the past one year or so, had raised a few pulse in our hearts.
The coaches of the national teams were no longer alien to the short-passing, possession holding game that Spain had played over the last 6 years and achieved glory time and again, because of which many haters call it boring/ ineffective. Neither were the managers of the club football. Yes I am hinting here to the fall of Barcelona. No one can possibly deny the fact that Vincent Del Bosque fielded 6-7/ the playing 11 from amongst the Barcelona regulars on every Spain outing. Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Puyol, Pedro, Busquets, Fabregas, Alba were the regular players in both the Spain and Barcelona sides. The coaches had noticed del Bosque’s tendency to keep a basic Barcelona side in the midfield and in the defensive back area and make the team rock solid with players from other world class clubs like Ramos, Villa (a Barcelona player until the last season),Torres, Xavi Alonso& Iker Casillas (a.k.a Saint Iker). This team setting had worked & worked really well for Spain. Moreover, it brought in 2 Euro Championships & a World cup back to Madrid, the capital city of Spain.However, the world had been shown distinctly, in the recent past not once but twice that the tiki-taka could be crushed& that there was a way to find the chink in the armour and destroy it- Firstly Bayern Munich tore Barcelona apart (7-0 aggregate) over two games in the Champions league semi-finals of 2013& then recently Real Madrid crushed Bayern Munich 4-0. It is relevant to mention here because Pep Guardiola, was at the helm of Bayern & tiki-taka was used as the primary tactics by him in that game. On both occasions the team having pace and the ability to counter attack caught the slow& patient tiki-taka in a cold spot and scored goal after goal without letting them settle down. Every time the slower team created a chance and missed the last, most crucial through ball to the striker/ lost the ball near the penalty area to a tackle, the counter attack would come in a flash, sting like a bee and would be out on the field, celebrating the pain it inflicted upon them, all before you could bat an eyelid. And this now is considered to be the face of modern football- fast break football where the ball is passed in no more than 3 passes in less than 8 seconds from the attacking team’s half to the opposition’s net! And the most concerning fact is that in this kind of football, not only the striker, the midfielder, even 1-2 defence players can come up on the other side to assist/ follow up in case the striker misses. Generally a 5-man defence is used in these kind of tactics. Already 5 goals have been scored in this edition of World cup using this technique; whereas the last time, in the entire tournament, 6 goals were scored by all times using this kind of technique. So clearly, tiki-taka is passé. Pace handling had become Spain’s weak point& the hence the immortals will no longer stay that way any longer.Coming back, Barcelona had a trophy-less season, their first in the last 6 years & I am surprised how del Bosque chose to run a blind eye on this scheme of things, the great downfall of Barcelona, his primary player bank for the national squad for the past 6 years. Some experts may deny this connection between Barcelona & Spain, but I stand by my views & to each, his own.
Football fans the world over knew that this World cup would test the fire power left in tiki-taka and whether or not it is past it’s sell-by date. As the saying goes, age and success makes you immune to one thing- change & del Bosque has ample of both. Vincentedel Bosque kept his faith in the same tactics,the roots of which were developed by Johan Cruff. But destiny has its unique way of doing things, it was interesting to seethe same man, van Gaal; who once as the Barcelona coach had imparted lessons on how to perfect the tiki-taka; make it look nothing more than child’s play. Certainly it was revenge served cold for the Spaniards, who had won the World cup final in 2010 against a rusty and foul-playing Netherlands. A lot had changed in the world over the last four years & certainly a lot of positive changes happened in team Netherlands but the only thing that stayed, basically the same was del Bosque and his team of ageing titans. It has been proved time and again that anything that opposes change perishes away & it was not different for Spain this time. The fact that Iker Casillas played only the cup matches for Real Madrid over the last season and was highly injury prone was not reason enough for del Bosque to put him on the bench and let the immensely talented, fairly experienced and justly capable De Gea take the goalpost. The only major change that he brought in was Diego Costa, the second highest scorer in La LIGA this season& recently acquired by Chelsea. The Brazilian born, Athletico Madrid star had opted to play for his country of residence (Spain) and not the country of birth (Brazil) & news reports came in that the player was getting the flak from the local fans on this bold decision. This must’ve somewhat unsettled him. Also the fact that he has never played with team Espana before did not help. During the matches, rarely was he seen interacting with his team mates and it was transparent that his chemistry with the team seemed cold. Diego’s old club team-mate, David Villa was left to warm the benches on the side-lines on both occasions& God knows why, despite of the fact that he has had a decent season with his new club- Athletico Madrid & has past experience of playing for Spain& Barcelona& for that matter; playing well. The man has a certain positive energy that he brings on to the field and that brushes onto others. And the biggest folly on my opinion was fielding Fernando Torres& substituting him for Costa. TWICE! A player, who is being asked to leave Chelsea but he is not leaving & is ready to play second fiddle to Costa, is someone you do not substitute for Costa.
However, I think del Bosque did ultimately realised his mistake and tried tochange a few things in the match against Chile. The team selection had me suggesting that he was trying to mix the long passes along with the short pass and not rely entirely on tiki-taka. But old habits die hard. He benched Xavi, the man who with his incisive passing skills along with teammates Iniesta, Ramos& Pique & clinical finishing had the world’s best teams beating dust time and again for the past few years. Pique was also missing from the starting 11 in the second match of group stage. I think Juan Mata would have been a better replacement for Xavi under such conditions. Even Mata (luckily) did not get a chance to feature even once in the most disastrous 180 minutes that Spain has played in the last six years or so, accepting 7 goals & scoring only one, that too from a penalty that was netted by Xavi Alonso in the 1st match.
The disastrous defending against the game with Netherlands was like striking the last pin on the coffin, the hopes of a successful World Cup campaign by Spain had almost gone, but we wished for a miracle. However, the loss in the game against Chile was like burying that coffin deep into the ground& creating a large tomb of shame over it.
But mind you, failure always gives rise to a new creation, it works as a fuel for motivation and reminds you of the fact that you are vulnerable& that is exactly what is required for Spain to do. The Euro qualifiers start this September & that is what the Spain team management needs to keep in mind. I would love to see a revamped Spain squad with a beautiful mixture of experienced footballers and talented, young green hornslike Vadillo, Garcia, Carvajal in the team& definitely a new technique of creating chances and netting the ball.If a few radical& bold decisions are required to be taken, they should be taken to makethe fallen lion rise again and roar as usual & declare itself the king once again. Peace.