From Solna to Zilina, for eight long years Spain went unbeaten in qualifiers. Defeated 3-2 by Northern Ireland in September 2006, they then lost 2-0 to Sweden in their following game. It proved a turning point and the run began. Between October 2006 and October 2014 they played 35 matches, winning 32, drawing two and losing none. On Thursday night, that run came to an end with a 2-1 defeat against Slovakia that the Spain manager Vicente del Bosque described as “absolutely unexpected”.
Others handed down far more damning verdicts. The reality is that when it comes to qualification for Euro 2016 this result matters little — in all probability, Spain will still make it and comfortably so — but this reverse mattered a lot. If anyone doubted that Spain’s era was over, here was further proof. After a unique run of three tournament successes in a row, the world and double European champions were the first team knocked out of Brazil 2014. And now this.
“Spain get used to losing,” ran one headline. If that sounded absurd, eight years on, it was not so far off. They have now been beaten four times in six games. Holland, Chile, France and Slovakia have defeated them; only Australia and Macedonia have been beaten. One columnist signed off cartoon style: “That’s All Folks”.
Del Bosque insisted that his team had deserved much more and some of his players agreed. Spain racked up 20 shots to Slovakia’s five and they had the home side cornered. The goal that made their task such a difficult one was a mistake from goalkeeper Iker Casillas and from then they were confronted by an ultra-defensive opponent. They risked everything to get the equaliser, a succession of defenders departing, and finally got it trough Paco Alcácer. But then they were caught on the break. “The second goal arrived because Piqué” was the only one [back] there,” Kozac said.
Yet this failure was deeper, not solely attributable to misfortune or poor finishing. Some recalled Cyprus, the game that cost Javier Clemente his job: the implicit suggestion was that this could prove Del Bosque’s Waterloo. It was not that bad, but nor was it that good. There was a lack of incision about Spain, the ball circulated without the speed that once characterised them and there was little mobility. There appeared to be few ideas too, a failing that is more alarming still for a team that if it had anything it had a clear identity.
This isn’t the Spain they’d come to know; it was more like the Spain they used to know and didn’t much like. “It brought back memories of the bad times,” wrote the AS. The descriptions that filled the pages of the morning papers were unequivocal. “Total write-off”. “A pale shadow”. “Ridiculous”. “Fiasco”. “Shipwreck”. El País’s match report opened by declaring that Spain had “lost its charm”, adding: “that brilliance feels very remote now … there’s no sign of that podium in Kiev”.
For the goalkeeper who lifted the trophy there, and in South Africa and in Austria, these are difficult days. Iker Casillas’s mistake only increases the pressure on the captain at a time when he appeared to be recovering. He admitted that he “did not like” the way he had played at the World Cup and many went for him, knives sharpened.
Del Bosque stood by him, despite having David de Gea waiting to be included. Standing by him will be harder now. “What a song!” ran the front of Marca. “Iker sings!” shouted the front of Sport. And the last thing you want is a goalkeeper who sings. In Spanish football parlance to sing is to mess it up and there have been too many songs of late. De Gea was likely to start on Sunday anyway; he may soon become a permanent preference.
At the other end, Diego Costa played his sixth game for Spain, 18 months after he played his second and last game for Brazil. He has seven in nine games for Chelsea but none in six for Spain. “No goalkeeper, no striker” sniped one headline and even if this was perhaps his best performance for the national team, he is still to find his feet fully. Del Bosque has talked about Spain adapting their style to suit Costa. Others have talked about Costa adapting his style to suit Spain. Neither has really happened as yet; they have not yet met. The sense of confusion nags.
Del Bosque chose not to see it. Or, at least, not to say it. “I don’t think we’re on a bad run,” he said. “That’s football. I can have no complaints about the players.” — The Guardian