World Cup: Spain Loses 5-1, 'Socialist Football' Ends?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/14/2014 02:45:00 PM
Spain's old guard looked, well, old.
The rematch of the World Cup 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands was highly anticipated since they were paired in the group stages this year. Spain was thought to be in the ascendant, having two of its teams contest the Champions League final and another win the Europa League. The Dutch fans stayed home in droves as they didn't expect much from their aging attackers and young defenders. It was thus a shock to most that the defending champions were throttled 5-1 by the Dutch, who could hardly believe their luck. It was really ugly for Spain fans. As the world looked on stunned, Spain, winners of the last World Cup and the last two European championships, are wondering just what happened.

One of the points requiring reassessment is possession-based football popularized by Spain's most dominant team of the past few years, Barcelona, and adopted by the national team coach Vincent de Bosque. Despite Barcelona being an exceedingly rich football club--the second most valuable after Real Madrid, there is a political philosophy of unselfishness that traces its roots oddly enough to the Netherlands' "total football:"
It took the basic tenets of total football to previously unimagined extremes – in part because of an exceptional generation of players many of whom had been schooled in a particularly idiosyncratic style at La Masia [FC Barcelona's youth academy], in part because of a visionary coach in Guardiola, and in part because of the changes in the offside law that increased the size of the effective playing area and so permitted smaller, more technical players to flourish.

When totaalvoetbal emerged as a term in the Netherlands in the early 70s, the totaal aspect of it was part of a wider movement in Dutch culture, particularly architecture. JB Bakema, one of the theory's prime exponents, argued that all buildings should have individual characteristics but should be designed with their place in the overall environment in mind. The application of the term to football made sense in terms of Bakema – the whole point of it was that players were aware of their positions within the system and were constantly renegotiating it for themselves; but there was also, at least outside of the Netherlands, a more popular resonance. This was total football because everybody, it seems, could do everything: defenders could attack and attackers could defend.
Some football commentators describe it as sporting socialism, with the aging superstar Xavi Hernandez as its guru:
And if tiki-taka [shorthand for passing and possession-based football] is Marxist, then Xavi is its Trotsky. He is tiki-taka's idealistic radical. He simply can't conceive of why any team wouldn't play possession-based football. But like Trotsky, he is being exiled. Whether he starts or not is one of the major issues in Spain at the moment. His level has dropped significantly in the past two years, as he is no longer able to provide the obsessive defensive pressure that he used to.
The opposite, of course, is the Jose Mourinho brand some have dubbed "anti-football" perversely designed to give the other team possession. Being in possession according to Mourinho makes it more likely they will make mistakes you can capitalize on. Oddly enough, these extremes of total possession and giving the opponent most of it are unliked by fans:
That's a natural part of evolution. A thesis (radical possession) arises, an antithesis (radical non-possession) arises to combat it and at some point a synthesis is achieved that will govern the consensus of how the vast majority of clubs will play for the next few years. That the two extremes are so seemingly unpopular is revealing, less in the preference it suggests on the part of the majority of fans for football with a more traditional narrative of cut and thrust, than in the depth of the hostility.
The funny thing is that the current Spanish team has the players it needs to overhaul the aging Barcelona backbone of the national squad. Atletico Madrid's forward Diego Costa featured but did not really play as well as he could in a tiki-taka-esque style alien to him. There were also the midfielder Koke--anointed by no less than Xavi as his successor--and right back Juanfran on the bench from Atletico Madrid, a team on a shoestring budget that unexpectedly beat the world's two richest clubs to the Spanish championship and came within three minutes of besting Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

Bottom line: teamwork still wins games, but tenacious team defending Atletico Madrid style instead of superfluous team passing Barcelona style is probably the way forward for Spain. It's too bad del Bosque chooses to dwell in past glories with his team selections since football has moved on and its golden generation is not young anymore. It is fitting that Holland, the home of total football that gave rise to tiki-taka, brings the message to Spain so graphically that there are different ways of playing the game. Evolve or die, and Spain looks to be doing more of the latter given its coach's druthers.