"Does this mean tiki-taka is over?" Ian Darke asked Steve McManaman in the waning minutes of Spain's defeat to Chile Wednesday afternoon.
"It's still a great way to play the game. Teams have just found the way to beat it," McManaman, who was covering the game with Darke for ESPN, responded.
McManaman was right, but for the time being tiki-taka -- Spain's trademarked style of play: short passes, quick touches, high possession -- is dead in the water.
This shouldn't come as a surprise, however. The writing was on the wall a little over five years ago, when they were upset by the U.S. in the Confederations Cup in South Africa. At the time, few chose to recognize exactly what the U.S. had done. Whether through sheer luck or good tactics -- I'd argue a little bit of both -- the U.S. pressured, harried, and countered attacked the Spanish to a 2-0 victory. They had given the world a framework for how to beat Spain.
A year later, undaunted by the loss, Spain marched into the World Cup with the swagger of favorites. While they were the eventual winners, they did lose to Switzerland in their opening match. Teams, however, were figuring out how to slow the Spanish scoring machine -- dropping 10 behind the ball and clogging all possible passing lanes. The only problem was opposing teams hadn't figured out how to score -- with the exceptions of Switzerland and Chile. Spain won each knockout game 1-0 (including the final), but it was taking them longer to breakdown their opponents.
In 2012 at the European Championship, Spain remained dominant -- scoring goals and letting in few (in this case only one). After playing the Italians to a 1-1 draw in the opening group match, the Spanish were virtually invincible. They were, however, forced into a shootout with the Portuguese in the semifinals after a goalless regular and extra time. But that proved to be the exception rather than the norm, as they defeated the Italians -- in a rematch of their opening game -- 4-0 in the Final.
It seems the Spanish style of tiki-taka was here to stay. No one seemed able to unlock the short passing, quick movement riddle. No one had paid attention to the U.S.' success.
Things changed last summer, however. As winners of the 2010 World Cup, Spain received an automatic bid to the Confederations Cup. They moved through their group stage with ease, beating Uruguay, Tahiti and Nigeria. The semifinal against Italy was a boring game that had to be settled in a shootout after neither team scored. And then came the final against the hosts Brazil.
The Brazilians had been playing superbly. Scoring early in several games and scoring often in all of them. This was a different Brazil side from recent years. They were disciplined, physical, yet they brought back the flair that was missing in the two previous World Cups. They played with a confidence not seen since their World Cup win in 2002.
"In order for Brazil to win, they have to score early, play physical, and pressure Spain non-stop," I told a friend before the game. Even after I said that, I still believed Spain would win. Three years of teams not utilizing the tactics the U.S. used had made me cynical.
"No one's beating Spain, not even Brazil in Brazil," I thought.
I was wrong.
Brazil started on fire with Fred scoring in the second minute. Score early -- check. They went on to score two more -- Neymar (44') and Fred (47') early in the second half. Spain did miss a penalty, however, but that was well after they were already down 3-0.
By the end of the game Brazil had accumulated 26 fouls. Play physical -- check. They pressed Spain non-stop, pushing them into mistakes and frustrating their intricately designed possession game. Pressure -- check.
Brazil had found the recipe -- or shall I say, improved on the one provided by the U.S. four years prior.
When this year's World Cup came around, it was hard to imagine there'd be a repeat. No way the vaunted Spanish side -- the most dominate team since the German sides of the late 80s-early 90s -- would ignore what happened the previous summer.
Again, I was wrong.
Spain started with a debacle against the Netherlands -- a 5-1 demolition. The Dutch pressed, harried, and attacked Spain -- following the U.S. and Brazilian examples. Spain offered no counter punch.
When they walked out against Chile, everyone expected Spain to respond. Surely, they would rebound by showing the world that the defending champs weren't going down without a fight. But Spain looked defeated, beaten well before the game had started. The going had gotten tough and instead of digging in and fighting, they panicked. Instead of leaving it all on the field, La Roja, unnerved by the realization that they had no response, left it on the bus before the game had started. Chile won the game 2-0.
Regardless of what happens against Australia on Monday, the Spanish dynasty as we know it is finished. They had wedded themselves to tiki-taka. They had dominated the world with such class and perfection that they took victory for granted. When they lost, it was seen a momentary glitch. Their class would always prevail.
In the end it was that cockiness, that hubris, that lead to their downfall -- the same attitudes that lead to the downfall of all great dynasties. They refused to change, refused to recognize the world was catching up. And now, after Monday they'll be on their way home destined to watch the rest of the World Cup from home.
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