Spain's Demise May Not Be Last Surprise as Underdogs Eye Their Old Throne

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Spain's Demise May Not Be Last Surprise as Underdogs Eye Their Old Throne
Christophe Ena/Associated Press

Eduardo Vargas, the man who sent Spain on their way to elimination from the World Cup on Wednesday, has Michael Jordan’s famous “Jumpman” logo tattooed behind his ear.

Jordan never managed to win four straight NBA titles (twice three-peating) and now, thanks in part to Vargas, neither will Spain. Having claimed the World Cup in 2010 and won the two European Championships held either side of that historic triumph, La Furia Roja’s reign as the dominant team in international football is now over, after their second defeat in as many matches in Brazil.

“The End,” as Spanish sports daily Marca put it, with a picture of Andres Iniesta disconsolately leaving the fray:

Wednesday’s match took place at the Maracana, the famous Rio de Janeiro stadium that will also host next month’s final. Spain were not necessarily considered favourites to get there—the majority of pundits have tipped Brazil and Argentina to be gracing that occasion—but they were certainly expected to reach the latter stages, to put up a prideful and passionate defence of their title and fly the flag for the European sides.

Instead, they went down without so much as a whimper, summoning no obvious response after last week’s chastening 5-1 reverse against the Netherlands. They were not beaten with long balls over the top or negative, defensive tactics—they were out-worked and out-thought, something previously thought almost impossible.

Chile’s similarly lightweight players swarmed around Spain’s harried stars throughout the 90 minutes, with Vargas breaking the deadlock early on with a quick bit of footwork in the box, before Charles Aranguiz effectively clinched the match shortly before half-time as he pounced on another error from goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

The king had been killed. The next three weeks will decide the successor.

“In football, everything changes,” Chile’s proud coach, Jorge Sampaoli, told reporters, per the Telegraph. “Spain have played well over the years but today that generation of players could not keep their success and that is normal, because success is not forever.”

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Perhaps Sampaoli had a point, perhaps we should have expected Spain’s demise all along. Pep Guardiola famously left Barcelona after four years of success saying it was no longer possible for him to keep motivating his players, while the pursuit of so many trophies for so long had also left him mentally exhausted.

Spain have been at the pinnacle of the international game for the last six years. Many of their players come from Real Madrid and Barcelona, so they have been chasing after trophies almost without a break for the better part of a decade. Is it really too much of a surprise that they were finally taken down by two sides hungry for their own slice of glory, sides who raised their game knowing they were coming up against the world champions?

"Something has happened, as for quality we are better than many teams,” Diego Costa, the one major addition to the starting line-up for this tournament, told reporters. “We wanted to do much better. Chile were much better physically."

Even when they were 2-0 down, with elimination on the cards unless they pulled something out of the bag, Spain were unable to muster a response. Passes went astray and shots failed to find the target. Suddenly, technique and creativity—the two qualities that propelled them to the highest heights—failed them.

“I would never, ever have thought we’d leave the tournament after the first phase,” coach Vicente del Bosque stated in his press conference, adamant that this collapse could not have been predicted. “Sometimes you see teams who are not dedicated but that was not the case [with Spain].

“We have played two games and we’ve not been able to be better than Holland or Chile and that’s the reason why we have to leave the World Cup.”

With Spain already planning their travel arrangements home (they have one final game against Australia to complete, but that is a formality), we now know a new country will be crowned champions at the Maracana next month.

On the face of it, Spain’s demise would seem good news for Brazil and Argentina, the two other favourites for glory, but perhaps Spain’s struggles are actually a precursor of more surprises to come.

Brazil, after all, have failed to truly impress in either of their opening two games—with their defence looking more suspect than many predicted, and their attack so far lacking the flair or cutting edge that their previous triumphs were often based on. If Mexico can hold them to a draw, then what will other similar sides have to fear?

Argentina too stumbled in their opener against Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their trump card (and what a trump card to have), Lionel Messi, ultimately needing to deliver a fine individual goal to clinch the victory.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Instead, it is the less heralded sides (to differing degrees) that have really caught the eye so far; the aforementioned Netherlands and Chile, but also Colombia, France and Germany (you can always rely on Germany).

The approaches and methods have varied, but all have demonstrated some combination of the same determined, well-structured defending and bold, expansive attacking play.

Chile did not keep the ball better than Spain, but they used it far better, pressing them into mistakes and then driving forward with a sense of purpose that will cause any opponent problems.

Should they fail to beat Netherlands in their final group game, they will likely be drawn to face Brazil in the last 16 of the competition. The Selecao may have been expecting to face Spain; given performances so far, Chile would not be an easier ride.

“You could say that we are the rebels of this tournament,” Sampaoli added. “Today we played with a system and an idea. The players believe in one idea and defend it.

“We will see if it is the best Chile team ever, that is something we can only say after the tournament is over.”

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