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The Curious Case of La Roja

Andy Mukolo
ANALYST
Feature
560   //    27 Aug 2018, 05:02 IST

Spain v Russia: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Spain v Russia: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

On the slopes of the Cherapanov hill, down the right bank of River Dnipro, there’s a 70,000 capacity edifice overlooking the entire city of Kiev. This is the heartbeat of football in Eastern Europe, but at the turn of the decade, this historic sporting venue became more significant to Spaniards than to Andriy Shevchenko and Ukrainians.

Two-minutes from normal time at the Olympic stadium, Fernando Torres after replacing Cesc Fabregas and notching his fifth of the tournament, set up Juan Mata for Spain’s fourth of the night –another typical la Roja goal, another typical la Roja performance, but the team they were ripping apart was Cesare Prandelli’s ITALY!

At about 11:45 pm in Kiev, Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca blew his whistle, bringing the UEFA Euro 2012 finale to a close, –Andrea Pirlo in tears, Gigi Buffon and Mario Balotelli visibly heartbroken, looking up to the heavens as though the answer to their defeat was neatly tucked away in the clouds –It wasn’t, the Spanish national football team had been unplayable all night, and the 4-0 humiliation was just another la Roja master class.

Since winning the European championships in the early sixties, and taking gold at the 1992 summer Olympics, the closest Spain had come to winning silverware was in Rustenburg –the 2009 confederations cup bronze match where they beat hosts South Africa 3-2, to finish third behind a defiant USMNT, against whom they had suffered a 2-0 defeat in the Semi-finals.

The likes of Germany, Italy, France and Portugal were billed favourites too, but going into Poland/Ukraine as reigning world champions, Vicente Del Bosque’s men had the world at their feet; possessing such flair, team chemistry and technical perfection that made life unbearable for opponents.

This wasn’t just 23 Spaniards competing with other Europeans; this was Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona 2.0

BBC’s Phil McNulty summed it up perfectly when he said:

“In midfield, they have the Barcelona carousel of Xavi and Andres Iniesta….augmented by Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso”

These high-class technicians were at the peak of their metronomic powers, and even though they eschewed each other on El Clasico basisthe exceptionally blessed midfield maestros became weapons of mass destruction once they pulled on the royal red and blue –nothing but cold calculated orchestration.

En route the grand finale in Kiev, on a disappointing night in Donetsk, France had been eliminated by Del Bosque’s men in the quarter-finals, but for Michel Platini, there were no hard feelings. The UEFA President handed Iker Casillas the trophy – fireworks went off, and of course, champagne flowed, after all, the Seleccion Espanola dynasty had just entered its fourth year.

It was fascinating to behold, but the story was perfect too –how Vicente Del Bosque, a distinguished Salamanca tactician, emerged from the ruins of a disappointing Besiktas spell to inspire the most dominant team on the big stage.

How did man get here? and what do we know of the infinite intelligence that transforms ordinary nations to world beaters?

June 30, 2013. –Estadio do Maracana, Rio De Janeiro.

In the most glittering of arenas, two renowned patrons of the game shook hands as spectators waited on the edge of their seats, for one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the decade.

Both Luis Felipe Scolari, and Vicente Del Bosque were already World cup winners, and now, they had coached their way to the edge of glory again; proud mustachioed managers leading their nations to FIFA Confederations cup Grand finale

For Brazil, this was familiar territory, but for World Champions Spain, this was probably their last chance to complete the much-coveted triangle of World, Continental and Confederations triumph, the latter being the only missing piece in la Roja's trophy puzzle.

Four years ago in South Africa, Selecao Brasileira were firm favourites when they dispatched USMNT 3-2 in Johannesburg. This time, the odds favoured Del Bosque’s men, and if Nostradamus had projected anything other than a victory for Seleccion Espanola, he would have been devoured by the Spanish media.

As the final reached its final quarter, Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers produced the first straight red of a FIFA Confederations cup final –Moments after Sergio Ramos had sent his spot-kick wide, a rapid Brazil counter put Gerard Pique in a very compromising situation, the Barcelona defender clipped future team-mate Neymar on the edge of the box and promptly received his marching orders.

At 3-0, Spain were overwhelmed and overstretched, and while a mesmerizing Santos playmaker was the chief architect of all their problems at the Maracana, it was the unforgiving Fred who drove the final nail in the heart of la Roja's dreams

For Scolari and Brazilians, this was business as usual, three successive confederations cup triumphs, it was their competition, but for Italy, and for Germany, and all the others who had suffered agonizing defeats against la Furia Roja, this was revenge served cold!

Yet, Spain went into the 2014 FIFA World Cup as strong favorites; most of their players had made the UEFA Team of the year and were flying to Brazil as the best in their respective positions –they had suffered humiliation at Estadio do Maracana, but they still had arguably the most exceptionally blessed team on the big stage. Nothing was stopping these defending champions from conquering again, or so they thought.

France and Italy had suffered it, and while Brazil were spared in 2006, Spain weren’t so lucky this time. The curse of defending champions was upon la Roja and there was only so much Xabi Alonso’s well-tucked penalty against the Dutch could do.

On the subject of legendary tacticians, we dare not mention Louis Van Gaal in the same breath as the immortal Del Bosque, but on that night in Fonte Nova, the Netherlands coach ensured his Flying Dutchmen gave the defending champions a taste of its own medicine.

By the time Nicola Rizzoli blew the final whistle, the scoreboard read 5-1 to the Dutch, and for the defending champions, there was nothing left to defend.

Five days later, Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz added salt to injury in Salvador, inspiring Chile to a 2-0 victory that condemned the Red Fury to third-place in Group B. Jorge Sampaoli’s men advanced, as did Louis Van Gaal’s Oranje army, but for Spain and Australia, it was time to go home.

The 5-1 Dutch hammering set the three-time European champions on a downward spiral from which they never really recovered; through the valley of the shadow of death, into the darkness from which they had emerged to conquer the world.

Two years after a horrifying campaign in Rio, Spain no longer bore the burden of having to defend anything as world champions, but as champions of Europe, Del Bosque’s men still believed they had something to prove at the European championships in France.

Revenge is best served cold, and just when la Furia Roja thought they were on course for redemption, the ghosts of Rio resurfaced in Saint-Denis. Antonio Conte’s men put up a spirited performance to exert revenge and send the Spaniards crashing out in the Euro 2016 knock-out stages.

At full-time, Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle were national heroes, Conte and the Azzurri celebrated the 2-0 win like pardoned convicts, but in simple football language, this was the third successive disappointing campaign for Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain.

Another tournament, another shocking exit, and twenty-four months later in Russia, Iago Aspas’s missed penalty gifted Stanislav Cherchesov’s men a spot in the quarter-finals. Team Russia had written another line in their fairytale, and while this was the end of Fernando Hierro’s brief spell in charge, the last-16 exit also signalled the end of an all-conquering dynasty.

Today you are champions; tomorrow you are crashing and burning. Futbol is a beautiful game, but even to the exceptionally gifted footballers from the Iberian Peninsula, she can be a cruel mistress.

From Luis Aragones to Vicente Del Bosque, Spain’s dominance at the summit had been fascinating, and it was spell-binding while it lasted.

Yet, as Andries Iniesta, Gerard Pique and David Silva called time on their illustrious Espana careers, the curtains came down on one of the most captivating football stories of the decade, signalling the end of an era the beautiful game may never witness again.

Before 2008, Spain was just Spain, possessing much quality but like England, achieving very little. In the wake of Russia 2018, expectations have dropped, and early tournament exits have once more become the norm.

On paper, they probably look poorer without the Xavis, Silvas, Villas and Piques, but as la Furia Roja seek renaissance under 48-year-old Luis Enrique, is it not from the days of Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque, that the next generation of Iniestas and Villas -will draw inspiration?

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Andy Mukolo
ANALYST
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