I have a math equation for all you football fans. Spain = Barcelona – Lionel Messi + red shirts.
Day 3 of the 2012 Euro showcased what is arguably the highlight match of the first round: Italy v. Spain. It was this match-up four years ago in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Euro that propelled Spanish football to its current Golden Age. After Spain’s youngsters beat Italy in penalty kicks, they massacred Russia in the semifinals and dominated Germany to win the nation’s first international title since the 1964 Euro (this excludes all youth tournaments and the 1992 Olympics which is not a major tournament in men’s football). Following 2008 win, Spain, exuding confidence from every pore and terrifying opponents into submission, won every match in World Cup qualifiers, broke or tied records for win streaks and unbeaten streaks–streaks broken by the USA in the Confederations Cup semifinals–and promptly lost to Switzerland in the first round of the 2010 World Cup.
Of course Spain went on to win the World Cup, but in the Switzerland match something changed. Tiki taka football, once the darling of the cognoscenti, started to look stale and boring as Spain ground out a series of 1-0 wins en route to the title. Suddenly, many of the same people who once toasted Spain (and Barcelona) complained about how boring their dominating style was. Spain and Barcelona though are not a fair comparison, because while the two teams played the same style and shared many of the same players, the Spanish lacked something, a scoring threat. The difference of course is that Spain does not have Lionel Messi, and to a lesser extent Dani Alves running down the wing. (Messi, for his part, scored a hat trick last night for Argentina in a 4-3 victory against hated rival Brazil–quite possibly the first player to do that to the Brazilians since Paolo Rossi in 1982.)
All styles of play and all great teams eventually end. No Golden Age lasts forever. Whether or not this tournament marks the end of the Reign in Spain remains to be seen, but the national team’s tiki taka was already on the wane in 2010 when Switzerland, Portugal, Paraguay, and especially the Netherlands, figured out that the way to stop Spain from scoring (if not winning) was to play organized defenses and rough the Spaniards up. Without a Messi to terrify opposing defenses, tiki taka lacks its killer edge. That has been Spain’s problem, all the more so since the injury to David Villa and the vanished confidence of Fernando Torres. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets are all great and intelligent players, but they are midfielders, and when things get tight, they prefer to pass rather than shoot. Or, in a tortured analogy, they unlock the door but cannot walk through it. Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque must share some of the blame. He has a quality forward at his disposal, Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, but instead he chose to start instead a midfield sextet rather than use an actual forward–a fact that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman could not stop talking about during the match.
None of this of course tells you the score of the match, which was actually a 1-1 draw. To Spain’s credit, when Italy went up 1-0, Fabregas scored four minutes later. They held their nerve and got better. But watching the match, I got the feeling that given Spain’s difficulties in scoring and the departure of Guardiola from Barcelona, the sun has finally set on the era of tiki taka.
There are other reasons why Spain merely drew, and the top one of those is the good play of Italy. Italy is the most maddening national team in world football. They come from the land of Michelangelo and Verdi but their play reminds you that they also come from the land of Silvio Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra. Whenever one complains about their cheap fouling and diving, the Azzurri faithful complain about the critic being “anti-Italian.” Add whining fans and players to the list of things to hate about the Italian National Team.
By all rights, Italy should be done and dusted as a footballing nation. Yet again, their national league has fallen to scandal (is it coincidence that this happened the same year Juventus finally won the league again?). Their economy is falling apart (like Spain’s, I might add), and their political system is so broken that the European Union (i.e. Germany) had to replace their dysfunctional but elected government with one that might actually govern. Ironically, when the nation is in crisis, Italy is at its footballing best, and the Azzurri win tournaments–most famously the World Cups of 1982 and 2006. Equally aggravating is that Italy play at its best when it faces top teams. This is why Italy are the bogeyman of both Spain and Germany; neither of those national teams have ever been able to actually beat Italy. Even Spain’s 2008 win was officially a draw as the victory came as a result of a penalty shoot-out.
Spain were a pre-tournament favorite, Spain has dominated the world, Italy is in crisis, Italy exited the World Cup in ignominious fashion. Yet today Italy played the better game. Somehow Spain still managed to eke out a draw. Perhaps that is progress, or perhaps the era of tiki taka has come full circle and ended where it began–with a draw to Italy.
In other Group C news, Croatia beat Ireland, the whipping boys of the Group. I was not able to watch the match. The problem with working during the week is that during the weekend, I have to make sure that all the chores are done. While I could reasonably get away with watching Spain v. Italy, Croatia v. Ireland just did not have the same urgency. Till next weekend.