Olympic Football: Were Spain Victims of High Expectations or Underperformers?

Phil Weller@@PhilipWellerContributor IIIAugust 2, 2012

Jul 26, 2012; Glasgow, United Kingdom; Japan forward Kensuke Nagai (11) shoots on Spain goalkeeper David de Gea (1) during the group D men's preliminary match one day before the London 2012 Olympic Games at Hampden Park. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kryger-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kryger-USA TODAY

Before the London 2012 Olympic Games began, an enormous amount of hype and expectation was bearing down on a certain few athletes. Some, like Michael Phelps and Bradley Wiggins, achieved the golden success that many had predicted.

However, the likes of Tom Daley, Mark Cavendish and now Spain, the country that has lifted both the World Cup and won the European championship in the last two years, have all fallen short of their targets, of the expectations the public had of them. Has this had a detrimental effect on these athletes?     

Spain are, certainly at the moment, one of the world’s most formidable international teams. On July 1, they became the first side in history to be both World and European champions at the same time, and with the inclusion of Euro 2012 squad members Juan Mata and Jordi Alba in the Olympic squad, expectations were high for the side to medal at this year’s Games.

Qualifying for London 2012 by winning the European U-21 Championships last year in Denmark, Spain were drawn into a relatively straight forward group. But an opening game 1-0 defeat to Japan, finishing with 10 men after Javi Martinez was shown a straight red, and then slumping to another 1-0 defeat to Honduras three days later, Spain were out of the tournament shockingly early.

But should we have been shocked? Should we have expected them to do so well? Were Spain victims of the high expectations people had of them, or were they simply not good enough?  

“We really fought for it,” said goalkeeper David De Gea, playing at his home ground of Old Trafford for Spain’s final group game, which ended in a bore draw with Morocco. “We’re really sad that we’re out of the competition, but we’ve done our best.”

Indeed, if you look at the Spanish squad that lifted the World Cup in 2010 and the one that won Euro 2012, the star players—those who made the real difference in the side—are all at the latter end of their careers: Xavi is 32, Andres Iniesta is 28 and Carles Puyol is 34. So perhaps people have overestimated Spain. Even with Mata and Alba in the side, they are not the same side that beat Italy 4-0 a month ago.

And with those misconceptions, people expected them to cruise to victory against Morocco. Instead, as De Gea put it, “It was a very level game.” So perhaps Spain simply weren’t good enough to progress; after all, a team doesn’t simply make the quarterfinals through expectation alone. No matter how highly people think of a particular team, they still have to prove their worth. Unlike Spain, Brazil have done that, and that is why they are still in medal contention.

In regards to the pre-Games pressure, De Gea shrugged it off. “There was pressure, but we’re used to playing under pressure. We haven’t been very lucky. These Olympic Games haven’t been our Games, but that’s how it is.”

In essence, bar the exception of the older players, the Olympic Games is a chance for the competing countries to pitch their up-and-coming talent against the rest of the world. Where Brazil —who have won all three of their preliminary fixtures, scoring nine goals and conceding just three in the process—and Great Britain, amongst others, impress with their younger players, it adds promise for that particular country.

For Spain, the statistics are not so potent. As one Spanish journalist commented, “It is embarrassing” that the World and European champions can crash out of a tournament without scoring any goals.

Against Morocco, a frustrated-looking Juan Mata looked the epitome of his country’s performance during the tournament. Missing a host of chances, slicing volleys high and wide, failing to get the ball under control when the goal beckoned—it has been a case of nearly but not quite for La Roja. Even when Adrian Lopez found himself one-on-one with the keeper, a moment of madness saw him delicately chip the ball wide, so much so he was able to run after it and pass it back into the six-yard box. 

Spain’s final day at the London Olympics was one of wet, grey and miserable weather, arguably a fitting end. “It always rains in Manchester,” said De Gea, with no hint of a smile.

Yes, it always rains in Manchester, but it’s not often you see Spain play this poorly. Maybe our expectations were high. Maybe there was too much riding on this young, inexperienced squad to succeed. Did Spain under-perform, or did the media and general public paint them as heroes before they’d even taken to the field?

The conclusion will differ from person to person, but I, for one, am disappointed.  

This piece was written by Phil Weller of The Reporters' Academy, a media production company run by young people. The Reporters' Academy is integrated into the world of media, education and employment, based in two great sporting cities, Manchester and Melbourne, and is officially Inspired by London 2012.


All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.