Spain: How are the mighty fallen!

In football, we have seen the waning of such powers as England, the pioneers, Hungary, Holland, and now Spain itself. The former World and European champions were dismissed by Italy, 2-0, in the Round of 16 at the EURO 2016. In fact, the 5-1 defeat to Holland in the 2014 FIFA World Cup showed all too clearly that Spain’s hegemony was at an end.

The Spaniards are crestfallen after losing to Italy in EURO 2016.   -  Reuters

In football, as in history, empires rise and fall. The Romans, the Mughals, the British. Not to mention the Spanish, conquerors of Latin America that ultimately ruined their economy through the influx of treasure and resulting inflation.

So, in football, have we seen the waning of such powers as England, the pioneers, Hungary, Holland, and now Spain itself. In 1953, when a marvellous Hungarian team came to Wembley and demolished England’s unbeaten record at home against foreign teams by a 6-3 margin, that victory prompted a book called Learn To Play The Hungarian Way.

Hungary arguably deserved to win the ensuing 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, beaten in the final by a German team certainly helped by drugs. But by the next World Cup in Sweden, Hungary, without Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor, were a sluggish, bruising side, ultimately eliminated by Wales, the glorious surprise of the current European competition.

So it has been with Spain. Well deserved winners of the 2010 World Cup, yet thrashed 5-1 by Holland in Salvador in the opening game of their 2014 tournament, torn apart by the wizardry of the Dutch left-footed right-winger Arjen Robben. Having won only four years earlier, in the final against Holland, playing exquisite football against a team given to thuggish excesses. Spain then prevailed with football perfected by Barcelona, which schooled its teams virtually from boyhood in a supreme style of possessional football — tiki-taka if you like — which, in keeping the ball in possession for sustained periods, could tire their opponents as well as tantalise them. Possessed of two outstanding exponents in central midfield, in the shape of Iniesta, who was on parade in the EURO 2016 in France, and Xavi, who had retired before this EURO tournament.

The 5-1 defeat to Holland, however, showed all too clearly that Spain’s hegemony was at an end. The only goal they got against the Dutch was from a penalty, taken by that other fine midfielder Alonso. The Dutch went on to win the third place match against hosts Brazil by a crushing 3-0 verdict.

But by the time it came to the present European Championship, the Dutch would not even be there, humbled in those qualifiers by that remarkable Iceland team who would proceed to annihilate England.

At their best, the style perfected by Spain and Barcelona seemed unique and inimitable. Yet that 5-1 thrashing in Brazil showed that things had fallen apart, prompting once again the suggestion that it was a certain small group of players who exemplified and inspired it. For all their prowess, Xavi and Iniesta could not save Spain from that 5-1 defeat, and by the time the team came to France this year, Xavi had gone. Iniesta, for his part with his refined technique and inspired use of the ball, though he played well in Spain’s initial matches, was largely ineffectual in the ultimate dismissal by Italy.

In that last game, the young Spanish centre-forward Morata, of whom so much had been expected and who is now reportedly going to join a new club at huge expense after finishing his loan from Real Madrid at Juventus, began with some good goals but eventually faded out. In that final dismissal by Italy, he was simply ineffectual. Reportedly the worst and least effective player on the field. Spain, of course, have been finding it very difficult to pick the ideal centre-forward, in previous tournaments even using that excellent midfield player Fabregas as a deep-lying centre-forward with a certain amount of success. Yet it was all too significant when, with Morata taken off the field, Spain could do no better than to replace him with the Athletic Bilbao veteran centre-forward, now well into his thirties, Aduriz.

There is no doubt that in his prime the Spanish manager, Vicente Del Bosque, was outstandingly successful as a tactician. It was ironic to reflect that Real Madrid had got rid of him despite his success there because they reportedly felt he did not cut an elegant figure. But since that 5-1 thrashing by the Dutch, it was obvious that Del Bosque’s time too will not last indefinitely, and after such disappointment in France he has, in fact, resigned.

It is legitimate to ask whether he should not have gone after the Dutch humiliation in Brazil. Of Alvaro Morata, the ex-England and Arsenal centre-half, Martin Keown, said, “I was not convinced by the Juventus man. He kept dropping deep to get involved with the build-up play, but that’s the last thing your lone striker should be doing when he’s playing in front of a midfield containing Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva, still lively and quick. All he has to do is sit on the shoulder of the last defender and finish off any chances that come his way.”

Yet, as we have seen, Spain have scant alternatives to offer. A fact exemplified when the veteran from Bilbao, Aduriz, was sent in; surely a gesture of some desperation. The Spaniards had begun somewhat shakily with a very late winning goal, scored, significantly, by their centre-back Pique against the Czechs. As for Pique, although he had in defence a shaky game against Italy, he was thwarted of a goal only by a glorious save by the amazing Italian veteran keeper, Gianluigi Buffon.

Indeed, in that game it was only the defiant goalkeeping of the talented David de Gea, atoning for the bad error he had made in the previous defeat by Croatia, which kept the score down to reasonable limits. Nolito? Manchester City had just paid GBP 14 million for the Celta Vigo attacker, but against Italy, he was as ineffectual as his fellow attackers.

De Gea may have made that strange blunder against Croatia in Bordeaux, letting in a seemingly unexceptional shot by Croatia’s Perisic at the near post, but overall he is certainly a more effective figure than the big centre-back Ramos. Usually so reliable, dangerous with his head at set pieces, Ramos missed a penalty, which arguably should never have been given. But this was a dark day for him, both in defence and attack.

Turkey were beaten without excessive trouble, but this was scant consolation. Some could be found on that dire day in the buoyant form of Fabregas, driving forward from midfield, while Silva, adroit as ever on the ball, kept the flag flying in attack. And in all fairness to Ramos, that penalty should have been retaken, as the referee failed to see the Croatian goalkeeper come far out of his goal to block the kick. Exonerate Ramos for this then, but hardly for two shocking errors in defence.

His hour seems to have struck, but so, alas, has Spain’s!