Is the reign of Spain over?
Published: 17.07.13 / Written by: David Gold
Spain’s crushing 3-0 defeat by Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup has sent a message to the world about the team which has dominated the game for a few years now.
That is that Spain can be beaten. A 29 match unbeaten run in competitive internationals came to a shuddering halt in the Maracana as the Spanish conceded for only the second time in a knockout round tie of a major international championships since 2006. And then Brazil got a second and a third.
Brazil are buoyed and optimism is high that they can now challenge for the World Cup next year – but questions are now being asked about this Spanish team. Is this the end of an era? These questions have been asked before of course. Last year Spain negotiated their way through the European Championships in a style that many frowned upon. They passed too much, some complained, suggesting their constant possession was dull. It was an effective controlling device however, ensuring the opposition could not breach their defence, for they could not hold onto the ball. Then came the final and they crushed Italy 4-0, to sweep away the doubters.
They got through to the Confederations Cup final in a similar style but perhaps hints were there already. They drew 0-0 with Italy in the semi final and got to the penalty shoot out before winning. But this was Italy, who they had beaten 4-0 a year before. In their game, Italy were the better side for long periods.
Barcelona’s problems this season have added to the sense that Spain are a team in decline – they suffered against Real Madrid in La Liga and in the Champions League they won only one of their six games between the last 16 and semi final stage, and were put out 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich.
There is obviously a clear similarity between Barcelona and Spain – for one thing they boast many of the same players, and certainly the same style. But it is two players in particular who are key – Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Both team’s greatest performances and seasons have been when these two have been at their best, linking up superbly in the middle of the pitch, controlling play and slicing open opponents. The unfortunate reality of football is that player’s age. Xavi is a fantastic player, one of the greatest of all time, and he has been the brains of both teams. His philosophy guides Barcelona and Spain, and his principles are those of Johan Cruyff, the unapologetic defender of pass and move total football that the Spanish now preach. Yet unfortunately Xavi appears on the wane. He is getting older and has suffered with injuries in recent times. Added to that, both Spain and Barcelona have suffered from Carles Puyol’s absence at centre back. Every team, no matter how beautiful their play, needs an organiser in defence, a player who can dominate forwards with anticipation, positioning and determination. Puyol has been that man but he has been absent for club and country with injury.
These appear the key issues stifling Spain and Barcelona. Iniesta remains the fine player he has always been, and there are few signs that he is in decline, but the problem is it was never just about him. The problem is that the very best players who have made Spain and Barcelona so great are nearing the ends of their careers. Sadly, with that comes possibly the end of an era for one of the greatest teams, possibly the greatest team, to have ever played the game. Spain won’t go away – their success at every level of the game, with under 21 and under 20 teams thriving at international level, show that this is a country with a depth of talent beyond any other. But they may not hit the same heights again. A Xavi does not come along in every generation.