Holland’s victory over Spain was described in both countries as a historical result, and not without reason. Never before had a defending World Champion gotten their butts handed to them in such an all-encompassing manner. Sure, France didn’t manage a single goal in the group stage of 2002, and the memory of Cameroon’s upset over Argentina is still vivid more than twenty years later. However, losing by five to one? Daaayumn.
Flattering to deceive?
Did Spain really deserve this score line? They were on top for most of the first half, and although their penalty was given due to the fifth arbitral blunder of a two-day old tournament*, most viewers would agree that they deserved to be up one nil towards the end of the first half. Their midfield was in control, Costa looked dangerous throughout and David Silva squandered a great chance to bury the game by attempting to lob the Dutch keeper after Don Andrés carved open the defense like a Brazilian all you can eat meat buffet. Had he not gotten cute, it’s extremely doubtful the Oranje would have recovered from two goals down. Only a minute later, Holland equalized literally out of nowhere, with Van Persie deciding to finally break with his tradition of not showing up in big matches and executing one of the most beautifully headed goals seen in the history of the game. At the start of the second half, every Dutchman alive would have been happy if the game ended in a one-goal draw. Every Dutchman except eleven, that is. Was the fitness of the players the determining factor? The momentum after the second goal, which gave Holland wings on their backs and Spain lead in their feet? Van Gaal’s game plan of putting five Eredevisie players, two players from average EPL teams and a psycho maniac who makes Charlie Manson look like a teddy bear in service of two stars and a has been who plays at Galatasaray? Whatever the case, if you combine Spain’s defensive mistakes with the quality of Holland’s goals, five-one was an accurate reflection of a game that could have gone very differently.
What a difference a season makes
With football’s governing bodies conspiring to squeeze maximum profits out of the game by filling calendars so much it’s rare to turn on the TV and not see a live match, it is no surprise that at a lot of international tournaments the star players underwhelm more often than they shine. Bring forth La Furia Roja, whose players have a combined gazillion minutes in their legs versus the Dutch, a team with five starters that had not even played European football last season. Couple that with Brazil’s heat and humidity and you can start to understand why Spain got overrun in the second half. To cite Louis Van Gaal, after modestly claiming he did not expect his team to win by that much, said that the key to Holland’s first game was to arrive fit and well-prepared for the climatic conditions.
Spain’s (and Barça’s) defense
One of the more interesting conclusions one could draw from this game is that it might not have mattered one iota if Barça had bought a much coveted central defender during the last three years. After all, Sergio Ramos pretty much fits the bill of what we need, right? Speedy**, physical and strong in the air. Yet their defense leaked like a zinc roof under a tropical rainstorm. There are of course some mitigating factors. Two goals were completely down to Casillas (of which one the argument can very well be made that he was fouled by Van Persie) and the other three were moments of such individual brilliance that I still can’t believe they all happened during the same game. And let’s not forget that in two years worth of competitive matches before this one, Spain conceded a grand total of, you guessed it, five goals. Nevertheless, vast improvements under Gerardo Martino notwithstanding, the parallel with Barça’s defense stands. It will be interesting to see how Luis Enrique is going to address the balance of our team.
I can’t stand the guy. He’s arrogant, petulant and generally insufferable, or at least he comes off that way. I don’t know, maybe his mother likes him. Or not. But boy, is Holland lucky to have him. From his defense-splitting pass that put Sneijder eye to eye with Casillas to his sound barrier-breaking volley that La Roja’s captain miraculously kept out, the Dutch winger put up a performance for the ages. Both of his goals were a delight, and although the first one could have been prevented with a bit more solid defending, his second was unstoppable, leaving Piqué and Ramos with their eyes full of dust and turning Iker into a laughing stock. The big reason I considered Ribery’s ballon d’or candidacy of last year misguided was that he wasn’t even the best player on his team. Previously egocentric enough to make Cristiano Ronaldo look like Xavi Hernandez, if Robben had seen the light earlier in his career and combined his speed and technical abilities with the solid team play he has displayed over the last two years, he could have been in the running for player of the year awards throughout a big part of his career.
Spain’s chances for the rest of the tournament
Disastrous. I had not predicted them to go far to begin with, for the simple reason that they already defied the impossible by winning three tournaments in a row prior to this one, but to lose the opening game by such a huge score does not spell any good. They can keep their hopes alive by beating Chile on Wednesday and do Holland a huge favor in the process. If they draw, however, they’ll be left to hope that Holland lose their next two matches which, although not entirely impossible, must be considered unlikely. Either way, most of the scenarios in which they qualify for the next round will see them pitted against Brazil, a team which last summer’s Federation Cup final proved they do not match up well with at all. Such is life in the group of death, which must be won in order to avoid the host.
It’s safe to say that the manner in which they beat the title holders has at least helped to get some of the stink off a team that was widely despised for having the audacity to for once actually try to win a World Cup at all costs in 2010. Never mind the fact that Manchester United fans the world over are creaming their pants at the prospect of Louis Van Gaal in charge of their club next season***. As for their chances, anything is possible. Winning the World Cup is a tall order for a country that for the first time in more than twenty-five years simply lacks the talent to manage anything near such lofty expectations, but if they can avoid Brazil in the second round they might go on a good run. Very few expected them to even come out of their group, but after an openener like this, anything less than quarter final would have been a disappointed. Then again, it is not altogether inconceivable that they lose their next game to Australia… by five to one!
*We are three days later and honestly I’ve lost count. The biggest sport in the world in which games are generally won with the smallest margin will also be the last sport in the world to accept video technology. It’s a disgrace.
** Yes, speedy. While Ramos was criticized for getting outrun for Holland’s last goal, he still clocked 31 km/hour. Problem is that Robben ran 37 km/hour, which is being touted as a record for a soccer player.
* * I still think he would have made for a great appointment at Barça