Monday, 1 July 2013

The Spanish Come as Conquerors, Leave With Question Marks


 When Hernan Cortez and his Spanish Conquistadors landed on the shores of South America in 1517 they were walking into conflict with one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world.[1] The Aztec empire was a vast expanse of jungle which surrounded and protected densely populated cities. The Spanish left the safety of their ships and set off into the unknown seeking fame, glory and gold. Though outnumbered the intrepid Spanish were never outgunned, their Western technology easily capable of defeating the inferior Aztec weaponry. The brilliant Spanish commanders easily defeated the Aztec's ambush, hit-and-run tactics, using long standing, professional soldiering based around discipline and synchronization to emerge successful.[2] After numerous defeats the Aztecs began to see the Spanish as invincible demigods, impossible to defeat, thus losing their belief in their own powers and tactics. To cut a long analogy short, the Spanish came back with the fame, glory and gold in such abundance that Cortez is still remembered today and Spain became the richest and most powerful nation on the planet.

Fast-forward to Sunday night in Rio and you would be easily forgiven for predicting that history would once again repeat itself. The understanding and ‘tiki-taka’ style of this Spanish side has been cutting a swathe through world football for the past 7 years, winning 2 European cups and the World cup. Brazil was the final frontier to be conquered for Spain, the two sides not having played since 1999. There was little doubt pre-match that they would have the firepower to do it. [3] In Del Bosque Spain have an experienced, cup-winning general, in Xavi, Pique and Casillas talented and experienced leaders and in Torres, Iniesta and Mata the weaponry to beat anyone. Spain are brilliant on paper and on grass but how would they fair in the unknown of the jungle?

The fear was that they might be just as good. Throughout the tournament this has been the local’s and the media’s desired final. The local flair and Spanish style would be a beautiful and contrasting climax for a brilliant tournament. The only worry was that the final would be too one-sided. Throughout the tournament, the Brazilian media and local fans have admired the technical excellence of the Spanish and feared their own inexperienced, mostly Brazilian based team, would struggle to cope with the Spanish juggernaut. This admiration has been shown, in that most human of ways, by the neutral fans decision to support the underdog opposition, i.e. anyone playing Spain. In the Italy Vs. Spain semi-final the crowd cheered every successful Italian pass and groaned as Bonucci skied his crucial penalty into orbit.

Emerging from the bowels of the stadium into the febrile and raucous Maracana that awaited them, Spain entered into the unknown. Whistles drowned out the wordless Spanish anthem.[4] The volume somehow increased during the Brazilian anthem, louder and louder as the crowd and team belted out the music-less final verse. Experience told us that the Spanish would cope by holding onto the ball, damping the enthusiasm of the crowd and slowly passing the Brazilians to death. Instinct told us that Brazil could, just maybe, be in with a chance.

The lineups of the two sides.
Spurred on by adrenaline, Brazil took on the weight of history and changed the narrative. An early raid into Spanish territory from a raking David Luiz pass led to a cross from Hulk being scrappily bundled home by a prone Fred. Welcome to the jungle indeed. After the early ambush Spain were rattled, (going into the game Spain had not conceded a goal in their previous 9 knockout games) and they struggled to find their usual tempo and rhythm. Much of this was due to the excellent defensive pressure applied by Brazil high up the pitch. Xavi, the Spanish fulcrum, cramped for room and time, was forced to play sideways and backwards (his second most targeted player was centre back Sergio Ramos). By contrast against Uruguay, Spain’s most impressive match of the tournament, it was the right-winger Pedro.[5]

The lack of penetration in the Spanish passing and the early goal spurred on Brazil. Alvaro Arbeloa, partially at fault for his marking for the goal, was struggling and overmatched against Neymar.[6] Oscar fired wide after great work down the left by the lethal attacking tandem of Neymar and Marcelo. Paulinho’s audacious chip was only just scrambled away by Casillas. The Brazilian triumvirate in attack were being given free reign by the muscular defensive shielding of Gustavo and Paulinho.

David Luiz makes an incredible clearance.
Then came the moment for history and the weight of recent achievement to reassert itself. David Luiz, inexplicably playing 15 yards behind the rest of the Brazilian defensive line, played Juan Mata onside. His cross cut out Luiz and gave Pedro enough time to pick his spot back across Julio Cesar. Despite a slight bobble Pedro did everything right comfortably beating the ‘keeper. Only an unbelievable recovery from David Luiz, somehow putting it over his own bar from less than a yard out, prevented an equalizer. This was a huge moment in the match. Brazil's belief continued to grow, Spain's continued to falter.

Spain were made to pay for the miss shortly afterwards. A quick Brazilian break found Oscar on the edge of the box. His delayed pass allowed Neymar to get back onside and then, on the angle, fire his shot into the roof of the net. Shortly after halftime the game was over as a contest as Fred made it 3-0 with a quality side-footed finish. For the first time in a long time Spain suffered by comparison to the their opponents. Spain looked old and slow, unable to respond to the rapier thrusts of the youthful Brazilian starlets.

For all of its strengths as a style to control possession and tempo, tiki taka is not suited to chasing a deficit as it allows teams to get back into their defensive shape too often.[7] Del Bosque did his best to revive Spain’s fortunes and speed up their play, bringing on an out and out winger in Jesus Navas and Spain’s all time record goal scorer in David Villa. It was all to no avail as it went from bad to worse. Ramos missed a woeful penalty. Spain’s warrior, Gerard Pique, was sent off after 67 minutes for a cynical foul on Neymar. Spain were now literally outnumbered as well as outgunned. Followed down the tunnel by derisive chanting aimed at his wife, Shakira, who was in attendance as part of the post match awards ceremony, it was an ignominious exit for Spain and their best defender.

This was Brazil’s night. A brilliant display of attacking ‘samba’ football, goaded on by a beautifully symbiotic relationship with the crowd, gave a final that was as one-sided as many Brazilians had feared, just not in the way they foresaw. The result was perfect for Brazil. They took the fame, glory and golden trophy. Phil Scolari will now have carte blanche to continue to experiment and refine his Brazil side. The doubts that many observers had over the quality of the side have been dispelled. It was a timely reminder to the rest of the world just how difficult winning the world cup in the heat of Brazil will be. Maybe most importantly it damaged the mystique of the Spanish. They are no longer invincible demigods, in the fevered atmosphere of the Maracana they were shown to be human.


[1] To be more accurate they landed in modern day Mexico and Central America but bear with me on this.
[2] I doubt that they called these soldiering techniques Tiki-Taka though…
[3] With the honorable exception on the BBC of Gianluca Vialli who totally called the Brazilian win.
[4] This is due to the Spanish being unable to agree on any words. Seriously.
[5] Stats to be found at Fifa.com
[6] He also somehow manages to never look at the ball in the whole incident!
[7] As also seen in the recent Barcelona Vs. Bayern Munich Semi-final.