To think, it all began on the 27th June 2006. That night, Spain exited the World Cup at the Round of 16 stage having been beaten 3-1 by France. This, despite the score being tied at 1-1 after eighty minutes. For France, it provided the springboard for a unexpected World Cup final appearance. For Spain, it became the foundation for the greatest era in their footballing history.
The defeat to France in Hanover that night is rarely attributed to the success Spain have had. In truth, it was one of the best defeats Spain will have. It was the defeat that confirmed a changing of the guard. It was the defeat that confirmed the emergence of tiki-taka. Losing to France brought up a familiar problem among fans and in particular Luis Aragones. Spain had once again failed to find the extra gear to take them over the line. For Aragones, something had to change. With the emergence of players such as Cazorla, Silva, Fabregas, alongside Iniesta, Alonso and Xavi, the solution was simple for Aragones. He wanted to avoid a repeat of Hanover. He wanted them to become winners. He sought a quicker, more possesioned based game but above all he wanted control. For Spain, becoming winners was something they had craved for a long time. Before 2008, they had largely underachieved at international level. One of the few big powers yet to win a World Cup and only a solitary European Championship to their name. So the decision to drop Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer at the time, Raul, took cajones from Aragones. As you can imagine, it sparked an outrage from fans right up to a few weeks before the start of Euro2008. In fact, Aragones went live on TV in April 2008 to defend his decision to drop Raul. Nine weeks later, Spain were European Champions.
Xavi became the new symbol of La Roja and through him, Spain passed their way through Euro 2008 with repeated flashes of their technical excellence and skills. 2008 was arguably the most enjoyable of their three tournament wins. Following on from Greece in 2004, it was refreshing. Spain chose to be pro-active and win games playing their way. But it was also the only tournament where their style brought joy and not criticism. It was the verve and speed with which they moved the ball that left opponents shaking their head in amazement. The winning goal in the final is a perfect example. I urge you to YouTube this. It begins with Ramos at right-back. He plays a simple pass to Puyol who gives it to Albiol. At this stage Xavi drops deep. The conductor. He looks around for an option in front of him. Pops it to Silva who gives it back. Looks around again. No vertical pass on this time, passes it to Albiol and jogs on. At this time, there is no danger. The ball remains with Albiol in his own half. But then. Albiol to Capdevila. Inside to Senna. Xavi has gone from dropping into his own half to taking up a position in between the lines of the German defence and midfield. Senna takes one touch. Pops it into Xavi who controls, stops, turns in one movement before sliding it through for Torres. Goal. Not only the winning goal but a symbolic goal. Tiki-taka’s goal.
Two years later, different coach. Same style. Vicente Del Bosque was the man in charge of winning La Roja’s first World Cup. It’s at this stage, the ‘Spain are boring’ tag was produced. It remains one of the most ridiculous statements this writer will ever hear. The view behind the ‘boring’ tag was due to the fact Spain were no longer swatting opponents aside with the same verve and style that crowned the European Champions. There are few reasons for that. By 2010, everyone had realised what Spain were about. As a consequence, many opponents turned up to matches against Spain intent on defending deep, denying space and counter-attacking. Because of that, Spain now played the majority of games circulating the ball over and back with a large number of horizontal passes probing and probing until a gap appeared. The build-up became more patient yet remained effective. The Spain of 2008 had evolved. By South Africa 2010, Del Bosque had introduced a double-pivot of Alonso and Busquets in order to assert more control and protection for the defence. A sensible move. With defences dropping deeper, both full backs were asked to play higher up the pitch. The double-pivot offered protection against counter-attacks. Spain became a machine. With opponents refusing to allow space, fewer chances were created yet Spain remained clinical. The result? World Champions.
By 2012, the majority of the team entered the tournament tired after long seasons and almost four years of non-stop football. It had been openly admitted it was a concern for Spain. By 2012, Spain had evolved again. The false 9 became their preferred solution. A ploy to play no out and out striker in an attempt to (a) draw out the centre backs and (b) exploit the space in behind. It was greeted with yet more criticism. Many saw it as an obsession to keep the ball. Many called it boring. The term ‘plan B’ forever on the tips of their tongues. Ludicrous. That plan B of course was a big, tall striker to bring on in order to cross balls and use him as a target man. It was a hit and miss solution. Not what Spain aimed for. Del Bosque set out to win but he wanted to win the Spain way. Possession and control. Just like Aragones before him. There are two matches in 2012 that define Spain’s era over the last eight years. The opening game against Italy saw Prandelli’s men line out in a 3-5-2. It was an attempt to stifle and frustrate by getting bodies in midfield and allowing both wingbacks to push Spain’s full backs backwards. It worked too. It was a classic example of an opponent lining up to frustrate Spain first and win second. A counter-active way of playing. It wasn’t a wrong way to play. It just became the way most teams chose to play against Spain. Yet Spain found a way to snatch a draw in a game they really should have lost. The second match is the final. Italy are the opponents once again. This time, however, they chose to play football against Spain. The result? 4-0 to Spain. We are treated to the type of football that traces back to 2008. Quick passing and movement that brought the same joy as in 2008. The critics became fans. It was a reminder of how devastating tiki-taka could be. It was how Spain had always intended to play. A knockout blow to those who called them boring. Three major tournaments in a row. A historic achievement.
Which brings us to tonight. You couldn’t help but feel nostalgic watching Chile tonight. The ferocious pressing, quick passes and the way they created space were all parts of this great Spanish team that have disappeared bit by bit. It was always going to be a tournament too far to win in Brazil. This group of players have played almost 60+ games a season for their clubs before competing in a summer tournament with Spain almost every year since 2008. It becomes inhumanely possible to be at your peak. Spain have become victims of their own success. It’s a natural progression. Like all great champions, there are times when you find yourself on the ropes. In those times, it’s a desire and a hunger to win that ultimately brings success. Spain have shown that but at times you just can’t avoid that knockout blow. From the verve and style of 2008 to the more controlled approach in 2010 and 2012, they have overcome almost every challenge. It’s never nice to see great teams go out down with a whimper. To see them go from playing with an aura of invincibilty to looking vulnerable, weak and exposed. The time has run out for this group of Spanish players. The likes of Xavi, Casillas and Alonso will make way, perhaps Del Bosque too. They have served their country immaculately and have engraved their names in the hearts of all Spanish fans. The time will come now for players like Thiago, Isco, Jese to support players such as Fabregas, Iniesta and Ramos who will form the spine of the team going forward. For now though, we’re left to deal with the end of a truly great era. The end of a chapter, but not the book.
” All milk has a sell-by date, after which it goes off. ” Luis Aragones.