Armed goons kept protesters away from the stadiums throughout the Confederations Cup, yet after the final it feels like a regime has been overthrown. Not, alas, that of a bloodsucking corporate elite but just of a sporting one, that of Spain, the team that for over half a decade has subjected football to a tyranny as all-encompassing as it was artful. The empire may yet strike back but at least the manner of Spain's defeat gives the downtrodden a liberating hope that a new order could emerge. Next year's World Cup has suddenly got more interesting.
Spain obviously remain a formidable force but, just a year after they peremptorily crushed quibbles about their method by crushing Italy in the European Championship final, they have allowed doubts to sprout anew. They may have started this tournament with a magisterial dismemberment of Uruguay that suggested they were getting stronger rather than more vulnerable, but their performances thereafter caused certainty about their triumph next year to crumble. Nigeria and Italy exposed weaknesses even before Brazil reduced the aristocrats to a quivering rabble on Sunday night. There may well be valid reasons for that – fatigue, oppressive conditions and freakish off-days by normally excellent players – but there were also indications of possible systemic failure or personnel problems. The aura of invincibility around Spain has vanished, replaced by a cloud of doubts.
Coming at the end of a season in which German clubs matched the slickness of Barcelona and Real Madrid while out-pressing and out-muscling them, the displays of Italy and, especially, Brazil gave further sustenance to the belief that Spain, for all their ingenuity, lack mettle and a flaw has been found in their method. Spain have been beaten heavily before during their reign of tiki-taka terror – 4-0 by Portugal and 4-1 by Argentina – but they were in friendlies in the aftermath of their World Cup triumph, and were not as ill-boding as this shambles, in which Spain could have conceded more goals and received more red cards, their discomfort symbolised by errant passing and the uncharacteristic botching of the most elementary technical exercise, failing to hit the target with a penalty.
Disrupted in midfield more regularly than ever before, Spain were also made to look lightweight up front – where none of their forwards were as effective in this tournament as Fred, Mario Balotelli or Edinson Cavani – and at the back, where set-pieces and counter-attacks spread unprecedented panic. In goals Iker Casillas came with a point to prove but probably vindicated José Mourinho more than anyone, while Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Busquets, Gerald Piqué, David Silva and, more positively, Jesús Navas were among the players who will have left Vicente del Bosque believing that he has a bit of tinkering to do over the year ahead.
Ominously, of course, Spain have a cornucopia of other options to the ones that started in Rio, including Diego López, Cesar Azpilicueta, Javi Martínez, Xabi Alonso and Michu, not to mention all those nimble youngsters from their dominant youth teams. If this tournament heralded regime change, that may simply mean Spanish tweaking rather than a new ruler.
Brazil put forward a powerful case for supplanting the Spaniards. The tournament could not have gone better for Luiz Felipe Scolari, who decided on a plan early on and saw it come together perfectly in the final. Since the 3-0 friendly win over France before the tournament the manager has selected the same starting lineup and in their sternest test of all, no one could argue with any of his choices. Hulk enjoyed his best game for his country and for once was cheered rather than ridiculed when he was replaced. David Luiz, Luis Gustavo and Paulinho were superb and Oscar rediscovered the form that had deserted him.
Scolari said afterwards that the door is still open to the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka and Fernandinho but the players he has picked have now set the standard that all who aspire to take their places must surpass. And, indeed, to which all who aspire to beat Brazil must ascend. Germany may be able to rise to challenge, as may Argentina, Holland, Italy, Belgium and, of course, Spain. Maybe others, too. But the bar has been raised, heightening our anticipation of the World Cup. Mission accomplished, Brazil.