Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The collapse of an empire: sorry Spain the first major casualties of the 2014 World Cup

Spainful: Casillas concedes against Chile
THE reign of Spain falls mainly on the plane home. That incredible wave of Spanish conquest dating back to 2008 is OVER. Vicente del Bosque’s World Cup winners broke all records in their bid to return home rapidly from Brazil.

Walloped 5-1 by Hup Hup Holland in their opening Group B game and convincingly ousted 2-0 by a super hot Chile in their second, the football-speaking world had a field day with the kings of tika-taka, ignoring those 2008 and 2012 European Championships wins either side of their dour 2010 World Cup triumph.

It’s unfair. We all love to see the giants fall. But this was a Jack and the Beanstalk return to earth for a Spanish side which conceded just two goals in South Africa four years ago (and scored a record low of seven to conquer the world). In just thee halves of football – 135 minutes – they conceded SEVEN, Iker Casillas was exposed and without Carles Puyol, they seemed incapable of stopping the rot.

Seven-goal champs: Spain in 2010
Diego Costa, the Brazilian striker who opted for Spain after two friendlies for his homeland last year, turned out to be about as popular as Kingston Nkatha at Kaizer Chiefs, as effective as Ndumiso Mabena at Orlando Pirates. In short, a huge boo-boo.

Ironically, it was soon-to-depart South African head coach Gordon Igesund who said in Australia last month: “Spain have become too predictable” as he explained Bafana’s surprise 1-0 friendly win over Espana at Soccer City, venue of their greatest triumph.

Even more ironically, it would not surprise this writer if Del Bosque now becomes a target to succeed Igesund, given his CV. But there is a rarely-mentioned detail in the 63-year-old Spaniard’s career: he took over Spain in 2008 only after Luis Aragones had led them to their first European Championship success.

Ultimately Del Bosque was undone by his reluctance to change a winning set-up: he stuck with the old guard and it worked for the years – until their record-breaking demise in Brazil. No champions have ever lost their first two games in defending the World Cup.

It’s one thing to see World Cup winners fall at the first hurdle (as France and Italy did before them) it’s quite another to see such a great side, filled with Barcelona and Real Madrid all-conquering giants, slip out of the tournament without a fight.

Though they managed a couple of shots late on, it was Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla, on the periphery of the great Spanish successes, who produced most of the late urgency after coming on as a substitute.

I said before this tournament that South American sides would dominate, pointing out that Europeans have never won on the continent. I said too that Chile (and Colombia) could spring a surprise or two.

A crest-fallen Del Bosque, 63, said: "We were inferior to both Netherlands and Chile. It is a sad day for all of us. We are sorry we didn't succeed, now is too early to analyse where we go from here.
"The first goal really buoyed them and they really got into our faces. They got the goals and gave us a mountain to climb. We were too timid in the first half and did not react sufficiently in the second."

But as we glory in the fall of the giants, joined at the early exit door by brave Australia (beaten 3-2 in a cracker by the Netherlands) it’s worth remembering other big guns could soon join them – notably England, who cannot accept anything less than a win over Uruguay.

Ouch: last look at that Spanish defence
As the smoke clears, it would be hard to say that the South American big guns – Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – are in scintillating form on their home continent. Holland and Germany look the form sides with Aarjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Thomas Muller leading the race for the Golden Boot with three goals each so far.

But I suspect Argentina will get stronger and stronger. Brazil, with Neymar isolated up front thanks to the incompetence of Fred, Hulk and Jo, have a lot of work to do after their 0-0 draw with Mexico.

But this World Cup remains a fascinating journey. Scoring at a rate of nearly four goals a game, this is a tournament marked by attacking exuberance and super substitutions. Long may it continue.

And I leave you with this thought: were Spain single-handedly responsible for lowering the tone of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? Tika-taka may be great for the purists, but the lack of direct, exciting, thrusting football can be blamed on those pesky Spaniards four years ago. Germany were a far more attractive proposition and I said so at the time as they scored 21 goals and crashed out in the semi-finals.

Giants are not always attractive. They can even be mistaken for ogres. I for one am not sorry to see this particular Espana thrown in the works.

Disgrace: Assou-Ekotto and Moukanjo square up

Later last night, we had the unedifying spectacle of Cameroon crashing out and joining Spain and Australia in the queue at the Brazil exit door. Going down to Croatia 4-0 is one thing. But the unedifying spectacle of Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Benjamin Moukanjo squaring up to each other before the Spurs man (currently on loan at QPR) threw in a head-butt was too much.

Earlier former Arsenal man Alex Song, now at Barcelona, had been sent off for a ridiculous off-the-ball swing which left Cameroon coach Volker Finke summing up his night thus: "It's clear we have to find the reasons what's going on because such behaviour is really disgusting, it won't do, it's impossible. There will be repercussions."

All this of course, happening on television screens around the world to Cameroon, the nation which gave us the infamous son-of-a-sultan Issa Hayatou, who has run CAF, the African Football Federation, since 1987. Little wonder Africa is going backwards internationally if the dictator can't even keep his own nation in order. The current CAF situation in Brazil: Played 6, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 4. That's relegation form.

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