Netherlands 5-1 Spain, World Cup 2014
June 7, 2014, FedEx Field, in Landover, MD, USA
I was at the pre-game press conference of reigning World Champion Spain’s last warm-up game in the USA. The Spanish team was to perform against El Salvador, just before flying to Salvador, Brazil, to play in the 2014 World Cup. The strange sight that day was of coach Vicente del Bosque at pains to answer a simple question: Who would he start for Spain in their first group game against the Netherlands? The Dutch were the last team Spain had played in World Cup 2010, the team they defeated 1-0 to win that title. To start their title defense against that particular opponent in the succeeding World Cup seemed karmic, and who would take the field seemed an obvious concern.
Asking about a starting line-up is rarely a tough question, and in tournament play a coach usually knows, certainly six days out, who he will play in his opening group match. The only hesitation might be strategic, but del Bosque had made much of the fact that Spain were an open book. Yet, when the question came, at the end of an on-going flurry of queries at previous press conferences about the changes he was making to Spain’s trademark tiki-taka style of play. He seemed unnerved. The traveling Spanish media, in particular, wanted to know why he would change the style that had won the Iberian nation the Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, back-to-back-to-back.
The issue was that lately the coach had been using several players outside the core that had been the bedrock of this squad’s past success. Similarly, he had his team playing long-ball soccer with new call-up, Diego Costa, as the only striker up front, the target of those multi-meter passes. The departure from the short-pass possession style on the eve of the World Cup seemed risky at best. So, in effect, the question was really about what style of play Spain would utilize. For the savvy, the inclusion of Costa would be answer enough.
The coach, seated next to and joking with Gerard Pique on the stage, in front of the international media, was in no mood to be second-guessed and said: “We don’t have starters on this team.” He went on to explain that many players could play at key positions and that given Diego Costa’s form in La Liga that year he would be a shoe-in to start. To make his point, the coach would make six substitutions in that last warm up match. But the coach never explained why he would risk changing his team’s style.
The reigning World Cup champions would go on to win, an unconvincing 2-0 victory over lowly El Salvador on a beautiful day in a nearly sold-out stadium. But the seeds of what was to come were sowed at FedEx Field, and del Bosque seemed oblivious.
With Costa the only team focus on offense, the sole recipient of those long balls was easily marked and Spain were unable to break the Salvadoran defense. Though Cesc Fabregas skied a penalty four minutes into the match, seemingly showing how early the Red Fury had taken control of the match, the first half had ended with Spain having only a couple of chances at goal despite holding about 80% of possession. The long and short of it, so to speak, was that the defending champions were not clicking.
It took an hour for the 5’9” David Villa to find the back of the net with a header, converting a headed pass from Sergio Ramos off a corner kick. It was Villa again, this time at the 88th minute, who sealed the score line. But the only time Spain seemed like their old world-beating selves was during the last 15 minutes of the match when second half subs Villa, David Silva and Xavi Hernandez played short-ball. Xavi, the tiki-taka master, had only come in at the 74th minute.
June 13, 2014, Itaipava Arena, Ponte Nova, Salvador, Brazil
At 4:00 p.m. local time the skies had opened and plenty of rain fell, at times a drizzle at others heavier, but constant enough that players wore rain gear for pre-game warm ups and went into the locker rooms drenched after each half. The pitch mostly withstood the downpour, and the 48,173 attendees were treated to an exciting match, albeit one that would surprise them, particularly in the second half.
In the first 15 minutes of the game Holland had fouled over ten times and been called on seven, the fouls committed by six different players, giving viewers a glimpse of the gamesmanship Louis Van Gaal would employ all tournament long. Given his other coaching gifts, taking a page out of Bert van Marwijk’s 2010 World Cup playbook would look out of place throughout the cup.
The game did not lend itself to long stretches of easy possession as enough players fought opening game jitters and the slick surface to slip and slide just often enough and all over the pitch. Ironically the long-ball was often the better option, and the Dutch seemed more at ease, while Spain despite or because of their new style was tighter, their play stiff.
At the 27th minute a clumsy tackle by Stephan de Vrij whose foot caught Costa’s trailing leg resulted in a penalty that Xavi Alonso converted. The goals calmed the Spaniards as neither team had had many chances and those that did materialize were smothered by defensive blocks, tackles or goalkeeper saves. That one goal advantage felt comforting for del Bosque’s boys. But in that comfy lull came the play that led to the game’s clinching moment.
It was a brilliant, quick, short, Andres Iniesta pass to David Silva at the 43rd minute. A tiki waiting for a taka that should have set up a 2-0 Spanish lead, but for Jasper Cillissen’s fingertip save. But Spain had used their tiki-taka sparingly and when it produced the wanted chance the surprised recipient of the pass had simply not gotten enough of them to finish with ease, with the placed shot the play demanded. The save notwithstanding the opportunity was eminently makeable. And then came the iconic goal of the cup, at the 44th minute.
Daley Blind sent a long, high, curling pass from just past the halfway line, a hopeful, searching cross that seemed out of reach of the only Dutchman within the vicinity. But Robin van Persie did reach the ball. He dove forward at full stretch and met it about 4 feet off the ground, inside the box and halfway to the penalty spot. Rooted to the spot to which he had advanced, just past the keeper’s box, and in apparent disbelief at van Persie’s acrobatic, aerial contact, Spain’s goalie, Iker Casillas, followed the ball’s path over and beyond him, and turned to watch it hit the net. Game tied. Referee Nicola Rizzoli’s whistle blew shortly thereafter for halftime. That warm feeling the Spaniards had previously felt had turned icy that Brazilian afternoon.
At the 47th minute, as if to remind all comers of what to continue to expect, Holland’s Daryl Hanmaat committed the first foul of the second half. Three minutes later Silva assisted Iniesta to a nice shot from outside the box which required a watchful Cillissen’s save. Three minutes further in, Blind again turned assist man as his aerial pass reached Arjen Robben on the run and between Gerrard Pique and Ramos. The striker brought the ball down deftly and got around Pique to shoot before Ramos or Casillas could block—Holland had taken the lead.
If Holland’s second goal had added urgency to the defending champions’ efforts it did not seem to result in undue Spanish consternation. But their collective efforts seemed mechanical, not natural. It was as if they knew what they wanted to do—what came naturally and was most comfortable, tiki-taka—was not what they were being instructed to do.
Spain went on the offensive, looking for the equalizer and leaving themselves vulnerable to a counter. But their attacks were ineffective as a long-ball is always a 50-50 proposition and the taller, and often faster Dutch easily defended any Spanish attack.
At the 60th minute, Van Persie, always lurking and looking for a brace, took advantage of a counter against the run of play and shot from inside the right side of the Spanish box. The ball hit the crossbar after already having beat Casillas. Del Bosque took that as his cue and two minutes later substituted a mostly inert Costa with Fernando Torres, and holding midfielder Alonso with speedy striker Pedro. These two at least were in the mold of the new Spanish style as both liked to run at through balls.
But, at the 64th minute Pique committed his standard, unnecessary hand ball and the ensuing set piece cross saw van Persie run into Casillas, knocking him away from the ball and onto his back on the pitch, allowing de Vrij first an open close-range header that hit the post, and then an even closer shot from the rebound, for the Dutch side’s third goal. Casillas, the Spanish captain, was booked on the play for arguing that he was fouled. But too many other strategic fouls had gone uncalled for that one to register with the referee team. Holland 3, Spain 1. Del Bosque and company were not amused.
Spain finally picked up full-throttle on the offensive, but that left the spaces available for a counter ocean-sized. At the 72nd minute Ramos passed back to Casillas whose first touch was awful, placing the ball in the path of the pressing van Persie. The surprised striker took the gifted ball, evaded the goalkeeper’s slide and slotted the ball into the empty net—Holland 4, Spain 1.
At the 80th minute Wesley Sneijder sent Robben running from deep in the Dutch side. The pass led the striker ahead to where Ramos had the angle and several yards on Robben, but the Dutch striker was much too fast and outran the Spanish defender. Casillas had to run out to meet Robben and memories of the one-on-one in 2010 melted away as this time the striker left the keeper grasping at air. Robben took his time, lined up his shot and put it about four feet off the ground and into the net. Holland 5, Spain 1.
Fourteen minutes later Holland was on its way, eventually, to the semifinals and Spain was but two games away from being the first team to be eliminated from the tournament. Del Bosque’s hubris had earned him a historic marker, the largest losing margin by a defending champion at the World Cup.