The end of a dynasty is never quick and painless. It’s a long and sad process. Heroes are riddled with blame and great men are discarded. Everyone watches as the walls come tumbling down.
That was Spain against the Netherlands on the second day of the 2014 World Cup in Salvador. It was a gory, bloody, magnetic horror show. There was no denying Holland’s exhilarating brilliance, and also no denying that the end for Spain is no longer an abstract idea.
Spain’s dynasty teeters on the edge of oblivion.
The signs were there as long ago as last summer when Brazil dismantled Spain in the Confederations Cup Final. It was the day Spain lost their title as World Cup favorites, and Brazil reestablished themselves on the world stage.
But that was, for Spain’s intents and purposes, a friendly tournament contested by a team exhausted from the long European season. Playing Brazil in the Maracana was never going to be an easy task.
This was different. This was another European team in the Brazilian heat, and a team not even fancied to advance from the group stage at the World Cup. To think Spain had the lead in the game through a dubiously won penalty is slightly staggering when you consider the extent of their demolition in the second half.
Spain weren’t just beaten. They were exposed.
They’ve always been the most patient team around, preferring a 1-0 result to anything else. Possession was their best defense. Spain played the long game.
But recently, their vulnerability has shown. Spain were blitzed by the passion and intensity and physical prowess of Brazil, and the same thing happened against Holland. Spain was helpless to stop the onslaught in both games.
Who’s next for Spain? Chile, a team some have called the most attacking in the entire tournament. Chile doesn’t stop going forward, they run their 3-5-2 at a ferocious pace when their clicking, and have the pace to torment a much older opposition.
If Chile – at home in South America and comfortable winners in their first test against Australia – win, Spain are out. The end. It would be goodbye to one of the greatest international teams ever.
That’s how close Spain is to the brink. They don’t have a good matchup. Morale is low and real self-doubt is present for the first time in almost a decade.
To survive and stave off elimination, this team has to dig deep. They have to show a different side to the reserved, composed, cosmopolitan team we’ve seen pick apart sides terrified of coming at them since they won Euro ’08.
Chile won’t have any fear. No top teams will anymore.
Do Spain have another gear in them? They won all their knockout games at the last World Cup by a score of 1-0, but 1-0s don’t appear to be an option anymore.
Can Spain outscore a team? Can they outrun a team? Can they out-grit a team? Do they have anything left, or are the likes of Xavi and Iker Casillas a spent force with nothing left to give, waiting to be put out of their misery?
It all comes down to this game against Chile on Wednesday. Win, and Spain go on to beat Australia and get out of the group. Lose or draw, and they’re probably done. This group has played three major tournament finals in the last six years, but this a new kind of pressure.
How Vincent Del Bosque chooses to play his cards will be interesting. Del Bosque is a notoriously loyal man with a keen sense of team unity and harmony. Dropping Casillas isn’t as straightforward an option as it might seem.
Of course, Del Bosque might cave and respond to common sense, with two very capable ‘keepers in Pepe Reina and David De Gea on the bench. However, De Gea is out of the next few games due to suffering a knock. Casillas hasn’t played regularly at the club level for a year and a half for a reason. He was poor in the Champions League Final, and the lengths of his torture against Holland were painful to witness.
But Casillas is the team captain. He’s a legend who may very well deserve a chance to redeem himself. Dropping Casillas may be the sign for Spain to panic. More wholesale changes than that – it’s possible with the quality of Spain’s reserves – could upset the team further.
It’s a very delicate situation. There’s also this: How badly to Spain want to shock the world and come back from the dead? The moment Arjen Robben put the Netherlands ahead in their first game, Spain were done.
Various members of the Spanish setup have said over and over again that the team’s hunger remains as strong as ever. If that’s true, Spain will get out of this group. They still have one of the most talented teams in the tournament.
While the Netherlands exposed holes – like Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique as defenders who have to defend for extended periods of time – I’m not ready to give up on Spain if they’re not ready to give up on themselves.
On that front, Spain’s unbreakable team spirit should come in handy. Casillas was universally defended in the aftermath of the game against the Netherlands.
Diego Costa’s inclusion in this Spain team may seem very anti-Spain, but they need goals. Fernando Torres absolutely must not be relied on, and David Villa’s snub when Spain was down multiple goals in Salvador was telling.
It’s a big job facing Spain. No one can deny that. If Spain do finish second in their group, Brazil will wait in the Round of 16. A second consecutive World Cup triumph looks totally improbable, if not impossible.
This game on Wednesday against Chile could be the end – or a new beginning.
SEE MORE — Read our Spain World Cup Preview.