In the same month the Spanish king abdicated in Madrid, Spain’s other kings were dethroned in Brazil.
While Andrea Pirlo ages like a fine wine and continues to simply take the piss, Xavi’s legs just cannot keep up anymore.
Iker Casillas, now second choice at Real Madrid, appears a shadow of the goalkeeper he used to be.
David Villa, the country’s greatest ever goalscorer, can only get a start in a dead rubber (and is now headed for the MLS via Australia’s A-League).
The inspirational Carles Puyol has already departed, and now several others will join him.
It was obvious that this would be the last international hurrah for some of Spain’s most successful generation of footballers. The team that begins the Euro 2016 qualification and that which lines up in France in two years time will no doubt be very different to the sides we have seen over the last six years. The likes of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, David Villa and possibly Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres – key components in La Roja’s historic treble – all had question marks over their international futures before the tournament began and performances and results seem to have further reinforced that it is time for change.
Eras end. It was inevitable, and the life cycle of a footballer generally lasts less than a decade at the top – no one was under the illusion this would last forever. The manner in which it ended is what was most surprising; toothless performances and slow, predictable play.
Above all, Spain looked tired, bereft of ideas and the incisiveness of previous tournaments. As Xabi Alonso stated following their loss to Chile which ultimately condemned them to a group stage exit: “We haven’t been able to maintain our hunger and the conviction we needed to make a serious attempt at defending the trophy. We’ve lost our way, and the ability to be ourselves out on the pitch – that was what enabled us to win so many games in the past. The overall mood was different this time – not like it was in other tournaments”.
Tactically they weren’t quite there either. Diego Costa, albeit not fully fit, seemed like a square peg in a round hole and there was an absence of dangerous runs from midfield – something paramount to this style of short, probing passing.
Many still believed this team could be a force though, and predictions of back-to-back World Cups were far from unrealistic. A culmination of a World Cup Final in the Maracana in July would have been a fitting end for this golden generation (and a golden generation that actually, you know, brought home the gold).
Well it did come to an end in the Maracana – only in June instead of July.
And in the group stage instead of the Final.
The Spanish were the joint-first team sent home from Brazil alongside Australia, rather than the last team standing. Bizarrely, the highest and lowest ranked teams of this World Cup bowed out together.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming as warning signs were evident back in May. “In the dressing room I only see one player who has the hunger in his eyes,” said Vicente del Bosque, alluding to the young Atleti midfielder Koke; one of the few players who was making his major tournament debut. “After winning it all, the look in their eyes is not the same”.
Again though, no one saw it happening like this.
The lazy reports to emerge since Spain’s unexpected demise have called it the death of tiki-taka. Some are even calling it a blessing due to the “boring” football that they’ve played on the way to their successes – perhaps more of an example of tall poppy syndrome than any meaningful analysis. Being at the top for so long will gradually bring opposition.
The truth is this team was spent. The core of the squad had hardly had a break for six years. With international tournaments every summer and the majority of players contesting title challenges and going deep into the latter stages of the Champions League there was little time for their bodies to recover as long seasons were immediately followed by national team camps. Moreover, the RFEF sought to cash in on the team’s global success and appeal by organising marquee friendly matches all around the world (because long flights and short turnarounds can only be good for their fitness, right?). This was the tournament where it finally caught up with them physically and mentally.
This isn’t the death of a particular playing style though, simply the downfall of its pioneers and the greatest ever proponents of possession football. Claiming tiki-taka is “dead” is much the same as saying counter attacking is dead. The truth is that Spain didn’t play true tiki-taka in Brazil anyway, like all systems it needs the right ingredients and they lacked them.
Basking in their demise and making hasty generalisations about a particular brand of football are nothing more than an injustice to one of the greatest international feats in the history of sport. History will look back fondly on this Spanish generation in the same way we reflect on Brazil of 1970, Cruyff’s Totaalvoetbal of 1974 and the famous Hungarians of the 1950s.
In fact, so impressive is the style incepted by the late Luis Aragones and carried on by Vicente del Bosque that their legacy is clearly evident in this year’s World Cup, with essentially all nations playing a brand of football that is either a reflection of or reaction to the Spanish tiki-taka.
Spain’s tiki-taka was, at its best, swift, penetrating and above all else, successful. They were often unplayable, a joy to behold with quick passing interchanges making a mockery of defenders in the blink of an eye – in fact, the phrase tiki-taka originated from a former commentator being unable to keep up with calling the players’ names so instead he would say “tiki-taka, tiki-taka” as the ball was pinged around during passages of play.
The reason Spain have been labelled as boring is more down to the opposition than the Spaniards themselves. Teams hadn’t figured out an effective way of countering possession football so they would sit deep and rarely come out against La Roja for fear of offering enough space for Spain’s magicians to make decisive contributions. It still rarely worked though, and, to use a Parlour-ism, Spain would say “okay, we’ll score one and you can sit as deep as you like while we just keep the ball”.
In cagey affairs it turned into a defensive strategy as much as an offensive one, but the European Championships Final against Italy in 2012 reminded us of how lethal Spain could be when afforded some space and the opponent was forced to attack. 4-0. In a final.
This team revolutionised a way of playing the game with some of the most elegant, technical football we’ve ever seen on the world’s biggest stage, and Vicente del Bosque did so by overcoming the club rivalries of Real Madrid and Barcelona that had seen fiery, cynical encounters between international colleagues and previously divided national teams. He instilled an attitude of the collective; this squad was unified unlike Spanish teams of the past. The era of Raul and Madrid bias had passed and a united Spain sat on top of the world. Most importantly, they had finally shed the tag of underachievers.
It took six years for teams to find a successful way of playing against the Spanish, it is just a shame that they weren’t at their best to try and counter the counter. Things may have been different had David Silva made it 2-0 late in the first half against the Netherlands; however that would have only delayed the inevitable.
Tiki-taka isn’t dead, but this golden generation of Spanish football appears to be. It’s time for the elder statesmen to step aside and allow perhaps an equally exciting generation of footballers like Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Dani Carvajal, David De Gea and Isco to find their place in La Roja alongside the remaining figures of Sergio Ramos, Pedro, Javi Martinez, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets, no doubt led by Andres Iniesta who was outstanding against Australia – albeit in a dead rubber.
Let’s not get carried away with outlandish statements of playing styles “dying” or the greatest team in decades being “boring”. Spain of 2008-2014 were something special, a once in a generation team, the likes of which we may not live to see again. Instead of slating them and enjoying the schadenfreude because it looks like that’s where the bandwagon is pulling up, we should be smiling and saying “gracias” for being lucky enough to witness something special.
Long live the kings.