“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery.
The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image,
because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
– Marshall McLuhan
Let us forget, if only for a moment, if we even can, that the United States is playing perhaps the most important match in its soccer history on Thursday against powerhouse Germany. With one eye to the future, we should – we deserve – to look back on the recent past, and a generation of players from the Iberian peninsula which has proven to be the most influential of this millennium thus far.
Since 2008, the Spanish men’s national soccer team has dominated its opponents with a frustrating combination of midfield guile, adaptive poise and the efforts of a world-glass goalkeeper. In an unprecedented run of three straight major competitions, from Euro 2008 through Euro 2012 and including the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Spain drove its opponents mad. Diminutive midfielders angled passes around taller, stronger, more athletic counterparts on opposing teams in a style dubbed tiki-taka, and Spain regularly scored without the help of typical strikers, even though it had a bevy of them (David Villa, Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente) at its disposal.
Players overcame physical and cultural obstacles to form the Spanish side. The many divides which reveal themselves in club play, including Barcelona/Real Madrid, Basque/Catalan and bearded/shaved, fell by the wayside when Spaniards, united in the national team, realized that their combined powers were too much for anyone else on the planet. Casillas to Puyol to Xabi Alonso to Iniesta to Fabregas became an idiom in summarizing what Spain did, and everyone else could only watch as the ball rolled perfectly from foot to foot.
Spain’s run mirrored the otherworldly success of Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona team, which raked in trophy after trophy in a variety of competitions during his tenure from 2008-2012. Guardiola left after the 2011-’12 season to take a sabbatical, citing exhaustion. Four years is a long time, he said, and that takes it out of anybody, particularly managers of teams at the top for prolonged stretches.
With Spain, it was twice as long. Eight years of unrivaled excellence, always done the right way, or at least as right as possible in a game as marred with corruption and dramatic falls as soccer is.The players were humble, giving thanks to divine powers which, though they did not bless them with physical acumen, nevertheless gave them the chameleon eyes and superb economy to make the absolute most out of the least. Passes were fluid, movement came in triangles and anyone at any time was free to move forward in attack and try to notch one for his country. Even when Spain lost, as in the 2013 Confederations Cup Final to Brazil, the loss was beautiful, the movement was divine, the players’ resolution undeterred.
A detractor during the reign of Spain might have said that the team’s style was cold and calculated, that long through balls weren’t pretty, that 1-0 scores did nothing for the spirit of a contest, particularly when one side held the ball upwards of 80% of the time. This was not joga bonito; it was barely a derivative of its direct predecessor, the Dutch Total Football of Johan Cruyff. This was a bad movie adaptation at best, something boring and inevitable and that we didn’t want to see in the first place. Triangles are stupid; trigonometry was the last time we expected to encounter them, and here they are barging their isosceles ways into football philosophy. No thanks. Is the Australian Football League on?
To them, it seems fair to note that, while “calculated” is perhaps an apt term, “cold” is not. Spain endeared itself to us by finally breaking through on a world stage after decades of folly and disappointment. The country’s golden generation gave us perhaps the single greatest passing midfielder of all-time in Xavi Hernandez and one of the best goalkeepers and captains to ever man the posts in Iker Casillas. Their nuances became familiar to us; the field was a pinball machine, with one-touch passes and mesmerizing strings of possession inevitably leading to chances on goal. Spain became the San Antonio Spurs before the San Antonio Spurs, passing up open shots on goal in favor of even more open shots on goal.
The problems arose when the chances on goal ceased being inevitable. Opposing sides began to figure out the formula and started to “park the bus,” as in Chelsea’s triumph over Barcelona in the 2012 Champions League semi-final. Those mesmerizing strings of possession led nowhere, and periphery passes around the box in the face of clogged lanes became the norm, with counterattacking opponents scoring when Spanish defenders drew too close.
This year’s World Cup gave us a different side of Spain, one which is familiar to international soccer fans who paid any attention before 2008. A much ballyhooed run-up to the World Cup had many already penciling Spain into the final and even winning it, despite the fact that a European team has never won a World Cup on South American soil. Group stage losses to 2010 World Cup runners-up the Netherlands and the agile, equally systematic Chile doomed Spain in its run at a repeat title, probably ending the international careers of Xavi, the aforementioned Villa and Xabi Alonso. It was disappointing, but as with the several 1-0 victories in the knockout stages in South Africa, it had the feeling of inevitability.
Much has been written, including on this site by this very writer, about the supposed “death” of tiki-taka. Now, it has taken on a meta element, with think pieces entering the “death of the death of tiki-taka” realm. Objective fans can see that the style itself will not and cannot die, but rather it changes and amalgamates with something else to form a new way of playing. Spain’s run at the top was incredible and, in a way, just. As this generation rides into its sunset, we are left with the remains of an empire more influential than Isabella and Ferdinand could ever have imagined.