In soccer, dominance can end abruptly in disaster. Twelve years ago, France, then World and European champions, took a squad to the World Cup containing the top scorers in Italy, France and England only to return home without a single goal to their names. A 2-0 defeat in game three of the group stages against Denmark signaled the death knell of France’s dominance. Spain’s humiliation in Brazil was complete after just game two.
It’s strange to think that just two years ago when Spain defeated Italy 4-0 to retain the European Championship, goalkeeper Iker Casillas asked the referee to blow his whistle out of respect for their hapless (and injury ravaged) opponents. After defeats against the Netherlands and Chile ended their hopes of becoming the first nation to repeat as World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962, it’s now the Spanish (particularly Casillas) that need to be put out of their misery. None of the squad came to Brazil expecting their final game to be against Australia with just pride at stake.
After they were destroyed by the Netherlands, Wednesday’s fixture against Chile offered a shot at redemption. But overcoming Chile was never going to be easy, and given their very own wealth of talent they certainly had no plans to battle it out with Australia for third spot in Group B.
Xabi Alonso, who claimed this week that the plight of his team had been “exaggerated,” was the main culprit for Chile’s opening goal. A poorly hit pass by Alonso was intercepted by Alexis Sánchez whose perfectly timed through ball to Charles Aránguiz set up Eduardo Vargas for the opener after just 20 minutes.
Unlike last week against the Netherlands, however, falling behind helped bring the Spanish to life, and they enjoyed a fair amount of possession, with both Diego Costa and Alonso spurning chances to level things up.
But just moments after Alonso went into American referee Mark Geiger’s book (probably the best referee at the World Cup thus far) for a late challenge on Mauricio Isla, Chile would double their lead, leaving their opponents staring into the abyss. Casillas dealt poorly with Sánchez’s free-kick, recklessly punching it only as far as Aranguiz whose cheeky toe-poke evaded the veteran goalkeeper and put Chile two-up. The dream was fading fast.
If there was ever a time to for Spain to panic it was at halftime. Alonso, who despite issuing his rallying call, had a poor game and was replaced by Atlético Madrid starlet Koke. The substitute made an immediate impact with a perfect interception and link-up play with Andrés Iniesta who put Costa through on goal but the forward, clearly struggling with fitness, failed to deliver a goal.
But if Costa should have done better, Sergio Busquets might be guilty of the miss of the tournament. After Costa’s overhead kick the ball landed at the Barcelona midfielder just two yards from goal, only to bounce of his shin and go wide. It perfectly summed up Spain’s performance — and their World Cup.
Although the Spanish had opportunities to drag themselves back into the game, the Chileans were also guilty of spurning chances. After a neat break-away, the ball fell to Isla for what seemed like an easy finish, only the Juventus star somehow put the ball high over the crossbar.
A three-goal margin would have been quite flattering for Chile. Instead they had to make do with two and eliminating the most dominant force in global soccer in generations.
What we learned about … Spain: Certainly the end of an era, although Spain still possesses plenty of experience and youngsters to still be a force in global soccer. It’s doubtful whether Alonso, Casillas, Xavi and many others will ever appear on the international stage.
It’s also questionable whether coach Vincente del Bosque will remain at the helm. Del Bosque, who had hinted at retirement recently, has been lionized for winning both the World Cup and two European Championships, but will face tough questions about his selections when he steps off the plane in Spain. For a team that dominated sides through possession, their opponents found them out. From then on, it was just all too easy.
What we learned about … Chile: Fantastic to watch and deserved winners. It had already been noted that if Chile could overcome the odds and qualify from Group B they’d be in contention for a long and fruitful run in this World Cup.
When he plays well, Sanchez is as good as anyone, and even a half-fit Arturo Vidal would probably walk in to most midfields at the club (and international) level. Now that they’ve secured qualification, it remains to be seen whether they’ll rest players (especially with a few question marks around fitness) for their final game against the Netherlands, but few teams will be desperate to draw Chile in the Round of 16.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He is providing commentary for the Daily Caller on a regular basis throughout the World Cup. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt