World Cup 2014: Is Netherlands defeat the end of Spain reign?
Walking alone with slumped shoulders, a bowed head and weary eyes, Xavi exited Arena Fonte Nova wearing the look of a man who knew exactly how profound Friday’s 5-1 defeat by Netherlands could prove.
None of the assembled journalists even attempted to pose a question; there was no point. He was staring at the floor, seemingly oblivious to outside influences.
Others stopped to talk but not Xavi, nor Andres Iniesta. Two of the greatest midfielders the game has ever seen now down and despondent, humbled and humiliated, fatigued and forlorn.
For Spain’s defeat by the Dutch was not normal. La Roja lost their opening match four years ago before recovering to become the first side to win a Fifa World Cup having done so.
But this was different.
Switzerland in 2010 scored a goal and closed ranks – it can happen. Netherlands in 2014 subjected one of the finest teams of all time toan absolute savaging - that does not happen.
Spain have suffered two heavier defeats in their competitive history, but the most recent came in 1950, and neither are likely to have been as unexpected or potentially damaging as the one the World Cup favourites were subjected to in Salvador.
They did not trail at any stage of an unbeaten qualifying campaign in which their defence was breached on just three occasions, had lost only eight of 85 matches under coach Vicente del Bosque, averaged 60 caps per man and have not conceded in 10 knockout matches spanning the last three major tournaments, all of which they lifted.
Recall Del Bosque’s news conference on Thursday when he bullishly rejected a suggestion that his is a “veteran squad”, arguing: “We are mature, at our best”. He appeared irritated at the subject being raised, perhaps aware deep down that there is actually an element of truth in it.
His post-match verdict told a rather different story. “I feel sick,” said the 63-year-old – and if Spain are indeed at their best then, on current evidence, they are also in trouble.
Del Bosque described Netherlands’ physical approach in the 2010 final as “brutal”, but the only brutality on show in Salvador was a Dutch display that tore Spain to shreds.
Troubled against Italy in last year’s Confederations Cup semi-final and dispatched by hosts Brazil in the final, there were indications that the Spanish might be losing their way.
Xavi claimed before the match that Spain would “win or die” by their famous tiki-taka style of play and although Friday indicated the latter was more plausible, it is surely unfair to pass judgement over an approach that has generated such success on the basis of one match.
From chatting to a number of Spanish journalists, the overwhelming feeling is that the philosophy is tried and trusted, has become a part of the national identity and is here to stay.
What is clear, however, is that Del Bosque’s existing crop are possibly losing the ability and hunger to execute their methods to the level that has brought them many accolades and admirers over the past six years.
Seven of the 14 players who featured against Netherlands endured a disappointing season with Barcelona, while there was just one representative from La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.
Moreover, none of Real Madrid’s key attacking players are Spanish, and seven of the squad are aged 30 or over. Could this be the beginning of the end for the protagonists, if not the project?
So long the standard bearer for club and country but now the oldest at 34, Xavi was uncharacteristically lax in possession and a rare miscontrol led to the second Dutch goal.
Spain enjoyed 63.8% of the ball and made 618 passes to Netherlands’ 339, yet managed only four shots on target to 10 for their opponents and lost 124 balls to 114.
All over the pitch there was cause for concern: keeper Iker Casillas made some important saves but otherwise had a torrid evening, right-back Cesar Azpilicueta was run ragged by Daley Blind, centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique could not contain Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, and striker Diego Costa was unspectacular in the 62 minutes he was given.
When Van Persie scored his second goal to make it 4-1, the television cameras cut to the Spanish dugout as they watched a replay on the big screens. The players and staff were visibly shell-shocked, likewise their supporters dotted throughout a gobsmacked stadium.
The contrast could not have been more vivid as the Dutch catapulted off their bench in wild celebration, the orange-clad spectators giddy with unforeseen delight.
Expectations around Netherlands were low: they fell at the group stage of Euro 2012, are the eighth-youngest squad in Brazil, had concerns over their defence and were relying majorly on the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Van Persie, Wesley Snijder – both of whom have had fitness issues – and Robben.
Valentijn Driessen, chief football writer for Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, explained that the estimated 2,500 fans who have travelled to Brazil are markedly down on the 4000-5000 usually present when Netherlands compete in a major competition. Hopes were not high.
The loss of Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman to injury saw coach Louis van Gaal controversially scrap the traditional 4-3-3 formation in favour of a supposedly defensive-minded 5-3-2.
But during an open training session in Rio on Tuesday, full-backs Blind and Daryl Janmaat were essentially operating as wingers and the pair played a key role as Netherlands went on to produce an attacking masterclass that conjured memories of the ‘Total Football’ they pioneered in the 1970s.
“Credit to the Dutch,” said former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry, a BBC pundit for the World Cup. “They took it from Spain. You have to own it, they went out there and they had no fear. I was questioning if they would be fazed but they weren’t. I’m speechless.
“Tonight the Dutch got their style back.”
Former England captain Alan Shearer added: “Some of the performances – Robben, Van Persie and Blind – were absolutely brilliant. I have never seen that Spain defence pulled around as much as they were tonight.”
If it continues, Manchester United followers will be beside themselves with excitement at the thought of Van Gaal taking over as manager later this summer.
The 62-year-old was never fazed by Spain’s greater experience – they named 16 survivors from 2010 compared to six for Netherlands and had 1,375 caps to 645 – and he is sure to take great satisfaction at helping develop a new generation of Dutch talent.
This was only a group game, nothing has been won or lost and both coaches will preach calm, but it was impossible to escape the notion – and you could sense it inside a buzzing arena – that we may have been witnessing a changing of the guard in world football.