The end of tiki taka. That has been the general consensus among football lovers in the wake of world champions Spain’s early and unexpected exit from the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Strange, because a few weeks ago, they were widely tipped as favourites to retain their trophy with a semi final berth being the minimum expectation. Football pundits, experts and fans are a fickle lot and I always maintain that. It only takes 90 minutes for long-held beliefs to be tossed out of the window.
Is it the demise of the (in)famous tiki taka though? I think not – and I’m not even a Spain adherent. Certainly the events of June 13 at the Arena Fonte Nova did a lot to sway opinions. The champions were hammered 5-1 by the Netherlands in a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final. Well, not quite a repeat considering the final was a physical, cagey affair which yielded just one goal scored in Extra Time whereas this Group B opener was more open with a glut of goals.
High level football is a game of fine margins. Outcomes are more often than not decided by distinct moments in the game. You could be seated watching for the one-and-a-half hour duration, and maybe that instance you dash out to take a leak, that’s when the difference is made. Spain had started brightly, passing the ball around in the manner we’ve so much become accustomed to and duly took the lead when after Diego Costa had dived (yes, that was a dive) in the area, Xabi Alonso stepped up and coolly converted the penalty. Normally, when the Spanish take the lead at a match (be it big or small) what you expect is that they will out-pass the opponent into submission and duly see out the match. At least that was my expectation this time round too. Then it happened. The event that just might have altered the course of history.
Don Andres (Andres Iniesta) drifting centrally as he so wonderfully does threaded in a sumptuous defence-splitting pass to David Silva. Now Silva is not the most prolific scorer of goals, but with his footballing ability, it was a chance that he should have buried blindfolded. He fluffed it instead. Almost immediately, Daley Blind crossed a diagonal from the left and Robin Van Persie, living up to his ‘flying Dutchman’ tag, looped in a worldie of a header mid-air past Iker Casillas in the Spain goal to make it 1-1 and effectively swung the momentum to the Oranje heading into the break. We all know what happened in the second half. The Netherlands and Arjen Robben injected the pace and absolutely tore the Spanish to shreds. They were so devastating that by the time the 80th minute rolled in, the tiki taka obituaries had begun to roll in a flurry.
It is tempting and very appealing to pass judgment in football after just one game and millions have fallen victims to this concerning Spain. Forget the 2-0 defeat to the pacey and gutsy Chileans in their second game that effectively saw them relinquish their hold on the title – the damage had already been done by the Dutch. The system did not fail, the players did. And of course a system is only as effective as its personnel.
In the lead up to the tournament, I did think that Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque ought to have been wiser and refreshed his squad, brought in fresher legs, especially those on form. He did try by successfully swaying Diego Costa to turn his back on his motherland Brazil and instead don the La Furia Roja colours, but in all honestly, the core of his squad was composed of the heroes from the Euro 2008, 2012 and World Cup 2010 triumphs. Judging by Barcelona’s dismal season, those players weren’t in peak form too. In goal, captain, leader and legend San Iker was picked as number 1, but the world knew that he wasn’t even the best at his club. Really, Diego Lopez should have been the man in between the sticks. Marquis Vicente may have been going for the good old reliable options, but in top level football, especially these days, no one has respect for anybody old. Games are won on form, not reputation. Class may be permanent, but class alone don’t win you games anymore. Form is more important.
Xavi is arguably the most important footballer in Spain’s history. For the last 6 years he has been the symbol of the Iberians’ domination. He has been the conductor of the orchestra and the one to dictate just how well the team plays. But of late his abilities have been diminishing. If it were up to me, he would not be in Spain’s first XI against Holland. But he has been one of the coach’s most trusted lieutenants and a senior figure in the Spain set up. At Arena Fonte Nova he was as anonymous as he could ever be. One wonders how different it would have been if someone like Cesc Fabregas or indeed Koke would have been groomed into the Xavi role prior to this World Cup.
This may not have been the most convincing defence of tiki taka, but the realities are there. If Del Bosque had picked the right men, maybe things would not have been this bad. It must be remembered that systems don’t play. Players do. Spain got it horribly wrong, but thrashings in big games is not an alien thing. It happens, even to the best. Tiki taka will get new purveyors and will still blow teams apart. It is the end of an era for Spain’s golden generation…but don’t write them off. There’s more waiting to be unleashed in the production line.