After their desperately dull quarter final victory over France there seems to be something of a backlash in the offing for the reigning World and European Champions. Having held the football world in thrall for the past four years, Spain’s style of possession-heavy football has delivered unprecedented success at a cost. If the current semi-finalists were to win Euro 2012, their third successive international tournament, they would go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time.
But whether their imperious reign will be fondly remembered is far from certain.
Spain’s achievements are something of a vindication for football’s self-appointed aesthetes. With their style regarded as the ultimate in thinking man’s football, any disapproval is viewed suspiciously, as a sign of ignorance or philistinism. However, rather than being an example of the game in its purest form, it smacks of something overly refined and systematised. Gone is the exhilarating rush and hurry of an end-to-end encounter, as the grand, pre-planned tactical battles that ensue have been laudably likened to a human version of chess.
Yet there’s a good reason why football is better attended and sees more screen time than chess, and why the joyous fripperies of a Jay Jay Okocha engage onlookers more than a ruthless masterclass from Gary Kasparov. Action, skill and spontaneity, no matter how flawed, is fundamentally more entertaining than painstaking concentration and precision, as displayed by Del Bosque’s charges. In Spain’s strikerless world of six miniature midfielders avariciously hoarding the ball, grinding their less proficient opponents into submission, there is no room for maverick individuality.
On the one hand, theirs is a triumph of the collective, in which a group of interchangeable and exquisitely functional footballers drive the opposition to mental exhaustion before delivering the fatal blow. On the other there remains something hollow about such statistics-driven joylessness, so commonly reduced to the fetishisation of possession stats. Xavi and co can make as many sideways passes as they want; it will never stir the soul the way a bit of individual brilliance by Ronaldinho does. As romantically misguided as I may be, and as valuable to Spain’s system he may be, nobody will ever dream of being Sergio Busquets.
And that it doesn’t need to be this way is perhaps the greatest shame of all. Spain have the players in their ranks to do so much more, to rack up the goals if they were let off their leash. Rather than purring incessantly over pass completion rates, they would be an infinitely more lovable outfit if they played with a bit more freedom and allowed for the unexpected to occur. For example, the random chance and chaos of crosses that a figure like Fernando Llorente would thrive on is regularly shunned for its far from optimal efficiency. You can almost see the internal mechanisms whirring when such a decision is made, guarding against any semblance of risk in its robotic insistence on ball retention.
Defending is an underappreciated art, and doing it with the ball is better than without, but that doesn’t stop it from being a perverse way to approach the game with such a talented group. That the tide of public opinion is turning against Spain should be borne out by history. While Brazil’s glorious failure to win the World Cup in 1982 is still praised for its derring-do, it is difficult to imagine the turgid triumphs of Spain being remembered as reverentially.
Ultimately, sometimes it’s better to lose heroically than win with little more than a whimper, especially when capable of achieving true immortality in success.