Spain never seem to do well in white. In Salvador a humiliating 5-1 rout by the Dutch in the opening game of the 2014 World Cup all but confirmed the end of a golden era for Spanish football. Last night in Bordeaux a 2-1 defeat to Croatia checked the start of a new one.
Del Bosque’s side are not out of the competition, but they have undoubtedly complicated things. Ivan Perisic’s winner, squeezed in at David De Gea’s near post in the 87th minute, meant that Croatia leapfrogged Spain into first place in Group D. They will face Portugal in the last 16, while Spain will play Italy in a rematch of the Euro 2012 final. If they beat Antonio Conte’s men, then they will probably have to play against world champions Germany, followed by a potential semi-final against hosts France if they can make it that far. Croatia’s side of the draw, by contrast, is much more favourable.
One game has changed everything for the reigning European champions. Following their 3-0 win against Turkey last Friday, Marca’s headline ran ‘That’s how the champions play!’It had been 12 years since Spain had last lost a game at the finals, four since they had last conceded a goal. Yes, Spain had lost to 137th-ranked Georgia in the build-up to the tournament, but two dominant displays against the Czech Republic and Turkey dispelled any doubts about the quality of the team. Gerard Piqué, previously booed by Spain fans, headed the winner against the Czech Republic. Morata scored twice against Turkey, De Gea was assured in both matches (despite off-field scandal), and Iniesta mesmerised with two man of the match displays.
The mood was rather different on Wednesday morning, with AS saying that Spain had ‘gone over to the dark side’ in terms of the draw. ‘There it was!’ the front page screamed, with a picture of Subasic saving Sergio Ramos’ penalty. Granted, the goalkeeper was way off his line, but there could be no excuses for this performance. La Roja had simply been outplayed.
All the optimism of the opening two matches disappeared. De Gea crumbled, raising doubts about his concentration and mental state, Ramos was poor throughout and even Iniesta was largely anonymous by the second half. Piqué was perhaps the only Spain player who emerged with any credit, but his contribution was soon overshadowed by claims the Barcelona defender had stuck up his middle finger during the national anthem, resurrecting the tiresome debate about his commitment to the team. The only real positive was Morata’s third goal of the competition, making him the tournament’s joint-top goalscorer.
Del Bosque was also at fault for selecting the same lineup for the third game in a row and making weak substitutions, with fatigue clearly playing a part. The fact that Ramos took the penalty was odd enough, but Del Bosque’s response in the press conference – “a manager doesn’t really interfere with that”- was even weirder.
Spain have nobody but themselves to blame for the arduous path which awaits them, and it remains to be seen whether defeat will spur them on in the same way as losing to Switzerland in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup did, or deflate them as it did in Brazil. For now, the focus is on Italy.