World Cup 2014: Spain rely on the old guard….and Costa

imageBefore Spain came along in 2008 and started winning cups, Brazil’s 1970 team was widely considered to have been the greatest international side of all time. Two European Championships and a World Cup have elevated Spain’s status in footballing history and statistically speaking, they are probably the most successful team ever. Can they make it four in a row? No European team has won the competition outside their own continent, but if any team can do it, it is Spain. But are they over the hill?

Homage to Catalonia

I wanted to gauge the mood in Spain and asked a colleague from Barcelona, a regular Nou Camper, if she was looking forward to watching La Furia Roja in their opening World Cup game against the Netherlands and the answer was unequivocally, “no way”. It did not take long to realize that her roots were Catalan and that her local club, Barca was representative of the“nation”. “That’s why Barca is ‘mes que un club’,” she said. “Yo soy catalan no Espanol,” she insisted.

At the same time Spain celebrated winning the 2010 World Cup, street protests were ongoing about the dilution of powers for the Catalan parliament. Any thoughts that football may have totally united a country that also has issues around Galician and Basque independence, were possibly misguided. Basques, for example, made no secret that they wanted Holland to win the 2010 final.

Spain’s squad this year includes no less than seven players from Barcelona (Alba, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta and Pique). Of these, Pique, Fabregas, Xavi, Busquets and Alba are all Catalans. That’s a sizeable chunk and underlines the influence that Catalonia still has on the national team.

While my colleague calls for independence, and a recent survey claims that 55% of the people would vote in favour of it, many people adopt the “dual identity” of Spain and Catalonia. The Euro 2012 final, which saw Spain win their third successive major prize, saw 75% of Catalonia watch the game. This suggests that Spain can, after all, call on Catalans to back them in Brazil as they seek to defend their title.

Tiki-Taka’d out?

They may need that support, as this could be a tournament too far for the team that has dominated international football for the past half dozen years. “Where’s the evidence?”, you may ask, and to be truthful, it is not easy to produce, but there is just this feeling that Spain may be past their best. Or it may be that few people believe this team can keep on picking up silverware.

They have still got some capacity remaining – the average age of the team that is likely to start the competition will be 29. That’s on the high side, but not extreme. Players like Xavi (34) and Xabi Alonso (32) might find the going hot in Brazil, and David Villas (32) may be best used as an impact substitute, but there should still be enough energy in the squad to keep Spain interested until the latter rounds.

There are suggestions, however, that Tiki-Taka may have been found out. For a few years, Barcelona seemed nearly invincible, but Bayern Munich (in 2013) and Atletico Madrid (2014) showed us there were chinks in the armour. Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich, taking with him the Tiki-Taka portfolio, has not been met with universal success. Bayern were dismantled by Real Madrid in the Champions League in dramatic fashion and there are rumblings in the beerhalls of Munich that the possession-at-all-costs style that Pep has brought to the Allianz is not entirely appreciated.

This doesn’t mean the end of Tiki-Taka, but the fact that opponents are starting to find an antidote to being passed to death. Like all “styles”, Tiki-Taka will evolve, although we are never likely to see it played so effectively or innovatively as when Barca and Spain had the “first mover” advantage.

A new, potent weapon

They say that if something isn’t broken, why fix it?, and to some extent, the Spain squad follows this philosophy. Of the squad currently soaking up the Brazilian sun, 14 have appeared in at least one of the three finals they won between 2008-2012. Seven have played a part in all three: Casillas, Iniesta, Xavi, Torres, Fabregas, Ramos and Xabi Alonso. Of those, only Torres may find himself on the bench in 2014.

If Spain’s squad is the epitome of continuity, their form in games that matter is untouchable. In the three finals competitions that ended in triumph, Spain won 17, drawn one and lost just once. Their goal tally was 31 scored and just four conceded.

Likewise, their record in qualifying competitions, up to and including this year’s World Cup, was 33 wins from 38 games, three draws and two defeats. That’s a win rate of 87% and points winning rate of 89%. The goal figures were 91-22.

If there are criticisms of Spain it is that the possession football sometimes fails to excite. When they won the World Cup in 2010, they scored just eight goals and became exponents of the 1-0 win, beating Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Italy by that score in the knockout stages. And in the 2012 Euros, they played without an out-and-out forward on some occasions, but their team of half-pint midfielders still won the competition.

But they have, if not a secret, but certainly an internationally untried striker, who may change all that. Diego Costa has only played briefly for the Spanish team, after his switch from Brazil, but there are high hopes that the Chelsea-bound striker can add a new dimension to Vincente del Bosque’s team.

There are question markets about Costa – his fitness, temperament and ability to shine on the world stage are all doubts, but he’s had an outstanding season with Atletico Madrid. He’s only 25, so he will have the energy to shine in his country of birth. For many of Spain’s team of champions, however, 2014 may be their last roll of the dice.

Ok until…

That last roll may last a few weeks before they say “adios”. The group should prove reasonably comfortable, as long as Holland don’t decide to uncharacteristically carry on from the 2010 final and crock all of Spain’s players. Chile may be a little tricky, given the geography, but Australia will not present a major challenge. Presuming Spain win the group, they will probably come up against Croatia or Mexico and then in the last eight, possibly Uruguay. And then it might get messy. Game of the People predicts the crown will slip in the quarter finals. It’s been a great run, though, boys…

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