Friday, 13 June 2014

WORLD CUP 2014: Do We Want Spain To Reign Again?

As The Greatest Show On Earth gets underway in Brazil, we predict that La Roja will triumph for the fourth international tournament in succession. But will that be good for The Beautiful Game?

On the face of it, Spain's "tiki-takanaccio" (a term coined by The Guardian's Rob Smyth in 2012) and Ireland's infamous "put 'em under pressure" mantra couldn't seem any more like polar opposites. But they are actually rather alike in a number of ways.

Built around a defensive midfield pivot (for Andy Townsend and later Roy Keane, read Xavi Hernandez) they are defined by spirit, organisation, professionalism, teamwork, loyalty and the exploitation of oppositional weaknesses. They are machinic ideologies, a blueprint for whatever degree of success is relevant to their respective countries, no more, no less; and it is that which makes them both rather restrictive.

It might sound ridiculous to criticise Spain for being limited and restrictive. One glance at La Roja's current status presents: An intricate passing game. Clinical finishing. Rock solid defending. An emphasis on youth development (the entire Spanish back line is in their twenties). Three major international championships in a row. And a galaxy of class: add Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and Iker Casillas, to name but a handful, to the aforementioned Xavi. What more could lovers of The Beautiful Game possibly want?

More heart, soul and bravery, that's what. At the risk of being a heretic, the Spanish system isn't aging too well. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, tiki-taka felt kind of terrific once, but now it seems a copy of a copy of a copy. Like "put 'em under pressure" before it, tiki-taka, or rather, tiki-takanaccio, minimalizes individual expression and risk, with the right results taking precedence. It is not that the systems are bad; it is that they are safe. They've worked, of course. But they need to be seen more for what they are; achievements in tactical footballing mechanics rather than revolutionary footballing art. And ultimately, one is likely to lose out if he stands by the "so what, it works" and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantras. If players are forever trained the same way at international level, regression, not progression, is more likely.

Give Spain credit where it's due. They haven't really regressed; tiki-taka keeps producing gifted player after gifted player (remember Jordi Alba's exciting and unexpected run and goal in the Euro 2012 final?) and Xavi has at least one more good tournament left in him. No, a more serious problem with La Roja is that in their quest to be masterful, to be perfect, they have drained the soul from their game. They aren't as brave in their victories because they don't need to be. Occasionally there are glimpses of genuine risk and excitement, as there were during the first half of the Euro 2012 final, but these are becoming fewer and further between. There is, and this might sound odd, perfection in imperfection in football. What we remember is not so much the attainment of "perfection" but the thrill in the quest to achieve it.

By nature, the "imperfect" sides and their temperamental totems are remembered extremely fondly. Recall Diego Maradona in 1986, Romario in 1994, and Zinedine Zidane in 1998. The mercurial Frenchman bounced back from an early sending off to inspire his team to glory on home soil. Or the Turks and Russians of Euro 2008, who weren't quite good enough to win the big prize but were expressive, individualistic and adventurous. Not to mention Jurgen Klinsmann and Jogi Loew's German Revolution of 2006 onwards.

We cannot, and should not, criticise Spain for discouraging technical skill. They have rightfully earned a reputation as a successful international side by making the simple things look good.

But how about making the difficult things look good? They've lifted their fear of failure and they've achieved great things, and they will feel no reason to change tack so long as they continue to achieve great things. That is commendable. And I don't believe they will be "found out".

Yet I remain unsure if that's really a good thing. For it does get to the point where you have to put all the records and trophies to one side and ask "Now what?" What more have this team got to offer us?

We say "Dare To Dream". The Spaniards should Dream To Dare.

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