Spain will need goals to escape group
Two days into the World Cup and Spain are effectively in a knockout phase already. It was not supposed to be this way. They must win and keep winning. The next time they do not, they will be heading home. Even if they do win their next two games, beating Chile and Australia, there is a reasonable chance that the most successful national team in history will still fail to get beyond the group. Not so much the end of an era as the end of the era.
Most teams haven't even started their World Cup; Spain may already have ended theirs. As their players departed the Arena Font Nova following the 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands, they all talked about how each game from now on was a "final," but the actual final feels a long way off. This defeat has been hugely damaging.
The front cover of the sports newspaper Marca was black, funereal. Spain had been "mown down," the defence "deflowered." This was "shameful," a shipwreck. In huge letters, the cover implored that Spain "SORT THIS OUT." That is far from easy. Spain's players talked about winning the next two games to go through, but that is only part of the equation.
If Spain were to win both games -- and the first of them, against Chile, will not be simple -- they would move onto six points. If the Netherlands beat Australia, they too would be on six points before playing the final game. Chile would be on three points. If the Netherlands assume that Spain will reach six points too, they will know that they can lose to Chile and still go through -- and, barring a hammering of their own, almost certainly as group winners.
If two teams finish level, then it will be the head-to-head record that decides their position. A three-way tie would be decided by goal difference. Spain will hope that they defeat Chile, and the Netherlands do too, but the Dutch may have little need and perhaps little interest in doing so.
Every goal that the Netherlands scored did not just increase the humiliation; it decreased the chances of Spain turning this around. They had lost the opening game four years ago too, but this was not the same. The goal-difference records now read Netherlands plus-4, Chile plus-2, Spain minus-4. Spain will need two wins and more goals. Against Australia, the chase will be on.
It's not impossible, and it would be foolish to dismiss this team. But even if they do go through now, it is likely to be in second place. And that probably means facing Brazil.
First Spain must face themselves. Vicente del Bosque said there had been conversations in the dressing room after the game. He described them as "constructive." He insisted that there had been no accusations, and that was a line his players followed as they departed the stadium; this had been everyone's fault.
As for the game itself, "I can't find the words," del Bosque said. Others found them for him. Spain was in a state of shock. The national team had been "ridiculed," most of the media agreed. This was the first time they had conceded five times at a World Cup since 1950, and it was the third-worst competitive result in their entire history. The Netherlands had torn them apart; they could have scored more than five.
As the columnist Roberto Palomar put it: "Spain were run over by an articulated lorry. And Holland's lorry did not just run them over, it then cranked into reverse and went back over Spain's dead body four times."
Spain put up little resistance; the most striking thing about this was the way they collapsed, that they looked so powerless, that they did not resist. They just willed it to end. It was as if they subconsciously felt there was no difference between losing 3-1 and losing 5-1, or six, or seven, or eight. But in a group that could well be decided not by points but by goals, the difference is gigantic. Each goal the Dutch scored took them two goals away from Spain, and distanced Spain from Chile, too.
This was a difficult game to analyse. Had David Silva scored when one-on-one late in the first half, it would have put Spain 2-0 up and secure. At that point, Spain had seemed in control and were playing reasonably well. A minute later it was 1-1. Then 2-1, then 3-1 ... Defensively Spain were awful. And simple, bad mistakes can be located in all five goals. Without those, or at least some of them, it might have been different, too.
But there was a broader sense of malfunction, a feeling that deeper and more profoundly negative conclusions could be drawn from this match.
Spain were so unlike Spain. They conceded more in this match than they had in the whole of the last two tournaments combined. Casillas was 40 minutes away from a World Cup record for not conceding and he let in five. They lost a game they had been leading for the first time since 2006, back when they hadn't won anything for 38 years, when no one believed they ever would. Back in the bad old days, before they were this Spain.
They did not have the control that has characterised them. It was as if they did not even compete in the final 25 minutes. And while the focus has usually been on other qualities, this is a competitive group.
Louis van Gaal stressed the importance of the Netherlands' physical condition in the climate and the humidity. It has been a long season for many of them and, in the case of the Barcelona players, a poor season too; the end of their era, if that is what it was, ushered in the end of Spain's era, if that is what it will be. Meanwhile, there had been those within the Spain squad already wondering whether the decision to train in Curitiba in the south of the country, where it is winter and cold, will prove a mistaken one. The leap to Salvador is significant.
The talk now is of changes; as usual, the online polls are powered by jerking knees. Some shifts may be necessary, but del Bosque is not normally a man given to grandiose statements or revolutions. He trusts these players, and rightly. Even if there are changes in personnel, Spain's model will not be thrown out. It is not that Spain need to seek a radical change, it is that they need to find themselves.
That might well be a psychological process more than anything else. "Depression" was the word del Bosque used. There appeared to be an emotional weakness, a mental as well as a physical exhaustion, from a team that has won it all. They did not compete. Instead, it was as if, like their king, Spain abdicated.