The Telegraph
Friday , June 20 , 2014
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Dissect but don’t forget to cherish
- Like Barca, like Spain

Spain is a divided country, a nation of proud individual regions. From Andalucia in the south to governing Madrid in central Castille to the industrious Basque region to rebellious Catalonia, this is a country struggling ever more desperately to hold itself together.

Similar cracks appeared to manifest themselves in the national football team as Spain did not merely slither out of the World Cup in Brazil but crashed head first down the stairs.

For the past six years, Spain have been crowned kings of world football. In 2008, La Roja ended a 44-year trophy drought by winning the European Championship. Veteran manager Luis Aragones retired but Spain maintained the momentum under Vicente del Bosque to win the World Cup for the first time in 2010 then retain the European crown in 2012.

Suddenly, the national team who, for all their great clubs and superstar players, were considered serial under-achievers could not stop winning. They equalled a Brazilian record with 35 consecutive matches unbeaten between November 2006 and June 2009.

Now, more history: Spain are the first defending World Cup holders to crash out after just two games of their defence; the first to lose their grip just six days after launching their defence.

Del Bosque will shoulder much of the blame. He picked the players, he picked the tactics, he decided on the changes between the carnage of an opening 5-1 demolition by Holland and the 2-0 surrender against Chile. He was a modern Don Quixote, tilting at windmills without a good enough lance or horse to do the job.

Usually, national team failure sparks a review of domestic coaching systems. In the case of Spanish football this would be a waste of time. Spanish youth teams have won 10 European trophies in the past 10 years. No fault with this system.

So, Spain’s impending exit — they have one last painful, academic game to play against homeward-bound Australia — must be ascribed to other reasons.

Most obvious is that the foundation, a near-perfect mixture of both personnel and style, has crumbled. This foundation was Barcelona and the tiki-taka mode of high-speed possession football allied to high-pitch pressing that denied the opposition the ball, lured them out of position, then killed them off.

Barcelona had the added advantage of Argentina’s Leo Messi to score goals. Spain made up by looking to Real Madrid for goalkeeper Iker Casillas, centre back Sergio Ramos and midfield anchor Xabi Alonso to tighten up the defence so that a comparatively low scoring rate did not matter.

The keys to tiki-taka were held by midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Xavi was a metronome, ticking away steadily with a passing precision that so mesmerised opponents they failed to notice Iniesta finding space to provide the killing goal assists to David Villa and Fernando Torres.

But their worst enemy was not to be found out on the pitch but in the calendar. As Xavi, in particular, grew older — he is now 34 — so he grew more susceptible to injury. The edge and the daring of the passing began to fade.

He was hampered that successive Barcelona coaches — Pep Guardiola, the sadly lost Tita Vilanova and “Tata” Martino — leaned more and more heavily on midfield possession while failing to invest in new, top-class defenders for support and security.

Thus Barcelona last season won nothing and their descent from the peaks of the club game has now, predictably, been mirrored by the national team.

Both Villa and Torres also fell victim to age and injuries. Their goals dried up. Del Bosque looked to Atletico de Madrid’s Diego Costa as replacement. He, however, came into the World Cup having barely recovered from injury.

Also, psychologically, Costa was wrecked by the hostile reception of Brazil fans angry that he preferred to play for Spain rather than the country of his birth. (Brazil, with Fred and Hulk badly out of form, could have done with Costa but that is another story.)

Finally, Spain’s collapse can be considered as personified in one player: Iker Casillas.

The rot started two years ago when Casillas, captain of Real Madrid, fell out with then coach Jose Mourinho. For Mourinho there could be only one commander in the dressing room: himself. Hence Casillas was dropped from the league team and used only in cups.

It says much for Casillas’s loyalty to Madrid that he accepted his downgrade. He knew, of course, that coaches — particularly at Real Madrid — do not last long.

Mourinho’s successor, Carlo Ancelotti, maintained Casillas as his “cup keeper”. But with Madrid putting such emphasis this past season on the Champions League, Casillas could cope. His dream was to be the captain of the Madrid side who won La Decima, the historic and record-extending Champions League.

He did just that though his rustiness meant he was to blame for the single Atletico Madrid goal that pushed Real to the brink of defeat before their remarkable escape to victory.

Del Bosque, who gave Casillas his debut at Real, never lost faith in him. Not even when Casillas was to blame for two of Holland’s goals last week in Salvador. Misplaced loyalty. Casillas, winning a Spanish record 156 caps, was to blame again on Chile’s second, killing goal by Charles Aranguez.

Perhaps Spain had won too much and were complacent; perhaps the players were tired after a long, tough league season; perhaps they were too old anyway; perhaps Del Bosque made the wrong choices in trying to patch up his team.

More like, in football as in life, all good things come to an end. The inquest over what went wrong should be balanced by an appreciation of so much that went so right. As one Spanish newspaper generously headlined the end of the reign of Spain: “It was wonderful while it lasted.”