So, here we are at last. It’s goodbye from Them. And it’s goodbye from That too. Spain have now left the building, offering as they frolic off into the wings of this World Cup a double goodbye. Not just to the receding silhouette of a truly great team; but also to an unforgettable presence, that brilliantly engineered artisan style that has dominated tournament football over the past six years to a degree that the thought of a final 25 days at this World Cup without any Spanish interest seems strangely giddy, as though the grown-ups have now left for the weekend and the kids are finally free to trash the carpets and empty the fridge.
Watching Vicente del Bosque’s team lose their first two games by an aggregate score of 7-1, it was already clear that Spain, or at least the Spain of the recent imagination, had more or less failed to turn up in the first place. There will be those who say counterattack killed tiki-taka, but Spain killed tiki-taka by simply ceasing to play that way, by adapting incrementally, shedding the excesses of lateralism and, more obviously, doing here what they have always done, but just a little less well.
In Brazil, they have looked like a team out of focus, a grainy version with glitches and flickers, Spain glimpsed through a smeared TV shop window. There has, above all, been a jarring imprecision about their football. Which is a bit like saying Usain Bolt looked OK, just a bit slow, or Zara Phillips did everything right at the Olympics except bring a horse to the start line.
Spain’s football over the last six years has been defined by precision. They were Spain here, but they were never really “Spain”.
And football, suddenly, feels a little bit looser, a little more open at the seams. First of all, though, what a champion group of players this is, albeit they must now on the whole be spoken of in the past tense. Of the current pack it seems reasonable to suggest Xavi, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, David Villa, Fernando Torres, Santi Cazorla and (possibly even) Andrés Iniesta have played their last tournament. There is, as always with sporting greats whose peak years you have watched from the stands, a sense of sadness.
Seeing Xavi wandering around in Brazil, still recognisably himself, but hurried and harried, submitting with baleful dignity to an opponent’s youthful thrust, was a bit like seeing Aslan consenting nobly to have his mane snipped off by the white witch’s minions, before expiring with doomed leonine nobility.
It has been a run of success to live down the ages. Before this World Cup, Spain’s previous 19 tournament matches had brought 17 victories, one draw and one defeat during three major tournament victories in a row. In outline, this is arguably the most concentrated run of success international football has seen, more rapid-fire than Brazil’s three World Cups between 1958 and 1970, more obviously domineering than West Germany’s four finals and two World Cup wins from 1974 to 1990, or Argentina’s tarnished double in 1978 and 1986. Arguments of style and aesthetics will come and go. But at the closing of the Age of Iberia it does seem certain that no team has ever come as close at its best to being simply unbeatable, as this Spain at its best, if only because winning a match must, by definition, involve being allowed to kick the ball occasionally.
Ah yes, that style. Beautifully reductive, maddeningly smothering: love them, hate them, suffer a mild irritation at their hands, Spain’s gift in the past six years has been to introduce a rare sense of semi-ideological divide and debate to international football. Here they come, those brilliant little red-shirted Velcro-touch gnomes, an elite, wised-up, self-propelling army of super-technicians, the first team to realise that with football’s concussive qualities now decisively diluted, if an entire XI can refine its control and passing to such a degree that there is no fair means by which to take possession back, it can essentially do what it wants with the ball.
To execute this so successfully is reward for decades of refinement, a style of play filtered at Barcelona through the total football of Holland in the 1970s, a factory-floor meritocracy that says every player is to have equally refined mastery of the ball. Post-Cruyff, this style lingered at Barcelona and was revamped through the input of successive managers and finally assimilated steadily by the national team.
Those who were in Innsbruck for Spain’s Euro 2008 group matches, the moment Spain first really became “Spain” on the big stage, saw a team that basically played 4-4-2 with a chugging Brazilian strong-man in midfield in Marcos Senna. Still, though, it was remarkable how Spain could keep the ball, albeit at that stage David Silva, Villa and Iniesta looked to be the stars, with the rise of outright Xavi-ism and Total Tiki-Taka still in the gestation stage.
Fast forward six years and Spain’s collapse has been equally spectacular, with seven goals conceded in two matches against a single iffy penalty scored. The received wisdom is that teams have simply found a way to counter Spain’s strengths. Sit deep, pressurise only when Spain enter your zone, and break fast down the flanks once the full-backs and central midfield have been sucked in. Mainly, do not fear not having the ball.
Against Chile and Holland, Spain had more possession. They had 15 shots to Chile’s seven, while Claudio Bravo made nine saves to Iker Casillas’ two. And yet they never at any stage looked like winning the game. Indeed, the dominant image of this tournament has been the spectacle of compact, muscular, fiercely aggressive footballers breaking like Visigoths at the city gates from a tactical encampment in their own half, as though sharing some collective vision that there is, it turns out, absolutely to fear in giving in to the urge to attack. And this seems key. Talk softly and carry a big stick (or rather, have Lionel Messi in your team) has been the Barcelona way. But Diego Costa has not been the big stick Spain wanted and possession without penetration has provided a greatly reduced threat.
Some will rejoice at this, not least those who say there is a coldness to Spain’s style, with its sense of mathematical perfectibility. It has been a frictionless excellence at times, football that is undeniably high end, but also devoid of rough edges, those revelatory spikes and twists that we recognise as contact team sport. Playing against Spain must at times feel like playing a chess computer.
Another criticism is that it is simply a defensive style, at times the sporting equivalent of watching somebody knitting a jumper. Before Brazil 2014 and since the group stage of Euro 2008, Spain had kept 13 clean sheets in 16 tournament matches. At one stage six Spanish tournament matches out of eight finished 1-0. This is football reduced to gleeful minimalism.
Yet to criticise this winning style is to diminish unfairly the technical superiority – and unrelenting hard graft – of the Spanish players. Plus fear of Spain over the past six years has been based above all in the sense that this might simply go on forever, that it is self-perpetuating dominance pumping out its annual cache of triumphant tiki-taka-bots.
It turns out that this isn’t the case and that we have instead been living through an era of irreplaceable playing talent. As is so often the case, the genius player comes first, the philosophy second, and Xavi is the spider at the centre of this web. There is a theory Spain were not really exposed by the tide of history here. What happened is that Xavi got old.
The most influential player in the world from 2008 to 2012, Xavi has defined an era like no other footballer, a waddling, pear-shaped state-of-the-art sporting genius, whose preternatural talents – brutal, exhausting possession-football – made the whole shebang of styles and eras and ideas function at its basic level. Xavi made more passes than any other player in the match against Holland, and with a higher success rate too. But his team also lost 5-1. This is over.
There are other, more obvious reasons why Spain have unravelled. An entire team has been allowed to grow old. They have, frankly, been doing this for a very long time, so much so that of the XI on the pitch at the end of the Chile defeat five players – Casillas, Iniesta, David Silva, Sergio Ramos and Torres – also appeared against Russia in Innsbruck six years ago. Had Spain had a proper goalkeeper things might have been different. Had David Silva scored when he had that chance against Holland … well, who knows.
What is certain is that Spain’s passing style, the revelation that the ball can be mastered in this way, does live on, and that there will not be a winner in Brazil who hasn’t reacted in some way to the style in which Spain have played football. Really, though, there is just a sense of sadness at the passing of the red dawn, if only because Spain came here already moving on, with that supremely zealous passing style in the process of being tempered and fudged.
If you must go down, the heart seems to say, go down fiddling. If you’re going to die, die with your passing boots on. Farewell tiki-taka (we’ll always have Kiev). But in the end the biggest regret is that we never really got the chance to say goodbye.