KRASNODAR, Russia — Spain started as a victim of chaos and ended a victim of too much organization. In its way, Spain’s 2018 World Cup fiasco will be as damaging as — perhaps more than — the embarrassments of Brazil four years ago and the 2016 European Championship in France.
The pandemonium of Spain’s manager initially choosing to become Julen “Two Jobs” Lopetegui and then almost immediately being sacked did have its debilitating effects. Of course it did. But that chaos should not, under any circumstances, have left Spain as limp, as jittery and, in Sunday’s last-16 match against the hosts, as dull as they were in Russia.
In Brazil, it was the end of times for a generation. In France, it was end of times for Vicente Del Bosque. In Russia, make no mistake, this was a group of talented footballers with the means, age, qualifying record and atmosphere that was fit to win this tournament. That they depart unlamented by anyone except themselves and their most staunch fans is damning.
Just over two weeks after Lopetegui’s sacking, La Roja fell victim to their own officious, bureaucratic, safety-first football and, ultimately, to the fact that Russia were ultra-organized. To go from shocking anarchy to dull “make sure to put out the cat and the milk bottles and tuck in under the sheets by 9:30” in the space of 18 days is quite some turnaround.
There are exceptions. After Spain’s exit, Andres Iniesta announced for the first time that “a personal cycle has come to an end” and that “not all goodbyes are as you’d wish them to be.” His eyes were brimming; quiet, dignified, but sore.
One of Spain’s all-time greats knew he should have been playing from the start vs. Russia, and that when he did come on, La Roja got a jolt not just of class, but of adventure.
These past few weeks have underlined things about the golden generation that won three straight tournaments — an achievement that no other nation has matched and, perhaps, never will. We knew that Xavi Hernandez, David Villa, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Carles Puyol & Co. were special.
But what this tournament has re-emphasised is that, beyond exceptional talent, they embraced risk. They accepted that, unless possession was used with devilment, with daring and with an acceptance that things can go wrong — “and so what if they do?” — then holding the ball for over 1,100 passes, as Fernando Hierro’s side did in Moscow on Sunday, becomes redundant.
It was embarrassing for them to be eliminated by a side that cannot play very much. Russia are determined and organized and buoyed by the home crowd, but too many of their footballers are piano movers, not piano players. And, frankly, who wants to watch the game played the Russian way?
Over the weeks, Spain’s training camp has echoed to jokes, laughter, teasing and the sound of heads being slapped (it’s called a colleja).
But it also baked in the heat. By Monday morning, when all of us left, the temperature had plummeted. To only 30 degrees Celsius! To us survivors of Kamp Krasnodar, it was a bit chilly; bar the odd day of dark, sullen, bruised skies, barometers consistently read 40-plus, and it wasn’t rare for that number to be 45 degrees.
The players cared little for the temperatures. Last Friday, at Krasnodar airport, the Russian bus driver ferrying them the short distance from private terminal to plane “forgot” to turn on the air conditioning. While the last administrative details were sorted, players and staff waited. Within 30 seconds, they jumped off the transport, cursing and complaining, to seek shade under nearby trees.
If that was too much, imagine an hour of training time in such weather? Was that the reason why, despite winning or drawing the second half of every game and leaving Russia undefeated in match time, Spain did not have a knockout punch in their locker?
FC Krasnodar is exemplary in its facilities but is miles from any sense of being “in a tournament.” When Spain won tournaments, things such as environment, atmosphere and free time were vitally important. At Euro 2008 in Austria, for example, Iniesta, Puyol and all three physios would head toward central Innsbruck.
“We were big fans of sushi, and while Xavi, Cesc [Fabregas] and Xabi Alonso gradually joined us, we were the original ‘sushi crew,'” Puyol said. “There was a good feeling, and it was just another of the small keys to our success.”
In South Africa two years later, the players were allowed a night out in Cape Town and traipsed back in, well refreshed but before the 11 a.m. departure time the next day. As in Austria, the predominance of spoken English functioned well enough that Spain’s players could have free time. The same applied in Poland in 2012.
Here, Russian was a barrier, and in Krasnodar, English was at a premium compared to, say, more cosmopolitan cities such as Moscow or St Petersburg. That contributed, I think, to a build-up of cabin fever for the players, who did not have enough to distract them from temperatures too high for the double training sessions that were the motors of 2008 and 2010.
Watching as the bill was paid at a muggy, humid Luhzniki Stadium, it was clear what was coming. During the penalty shootout Diego Costa prayed, while staff alternately cheered or cursed. When Koke’s effort was saved by Igor Akinfeev, Jordi Alba beat the same turf on which the new world champion will be crowned on July 15.
This group of men did not want to go home. They did not want that to be Iniesta’s last international match.
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Later, elegant in defeat, Hierro came back out to be interviewed on the pitch. He said the least important thing is whether he stays on as manager. He emphasized that his players had been fun, loyal, keen, professional: a dream to coach.
There were many cameos to suggest why Spain lost out, but the root cause will forever be the events that overshadowed the two days before their tournament began, which were set into motion when Florentino Perez, Jose Angel Sanchez and Jorge Mendes — or one of his associates — persuaded Lopetegui to accept the Real Madrid job.
Despite the timing, Spain’s manager expected to keep his post in charge of the national team; he saw no reason that he should not see out the tournament, having done superbly well since taking the role in 2016.
However, Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales felt differently and, in sacking Lopetegui, was punishing risk. He had his reasons, and some agreed with the decision, but the message sent was “we are linear, we are conservative and things need to be done in a certain fashion.” And that is exactly how Spain played for the most part.
Coincidence? There was none of the atmosphere, from a playing, coaching or administrative point of view; more abandon, more purpose and more character was needed. Idiosyncrasy, character, individuality were key truths about Spain’s winning generation. As were guts; after Sunday’s game, one senior federation member virtually spat out that the previous, winning group had more “cojones.”
Rodrigo came on in extra-time vs. Russia and caused problems with his movement and pace. Costa, during the past two matches at least, bore no resemblance to that. Rodrigo had a greater chance of starting under Lopetegui, particularly after his friendly goal against Germany earlier this year.
Iago Aspas also came on to dart around nimbly and add the elements of mischief and threat that, if used from the start of games, might have taken Spain to the final.
Iniesta? Lopetegui would never have dropped him. Saul, full of devilment and fun and self-confidence, did not play a minute in the whole tournament, while Thiago Alcantara was a “hokey-cokey” player: in, then out, and left to shake it all about.
There is an abundance of talent in this group, plus character waiting to be set free. The pity is that chaos at the start of the tournament left it over-organised and risk-averse and led to its bowing out weakly and tamely.
Now, the fallout and finger-pointing has begun in Spain. It will continue and, you can bet, will not be conservative, tame or dull.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.
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