Thursday, June 25, 2009
Spain relapse in Bloemfontein
Spain suffered a phenomenal relapse into their old ways by losing to a disciplined US squad in their semi-final match of the Confederations Cup.
Once again in sport, the favourite was defeated by the underdog, and once again in football Spain underachieved in a major tournament. Five factors had an instrumental influence in the outcome of the match when analysed from the Spanish point of view:
1: "La caraja"
The meaning of this word (not to be confused with its masculine, ruder version) is best explained through examples. With no rhyme or reason, some days your mind is elsewhere and you keep doing dumb things, such as locking yourself out of your apartment with your keys inside, putting salt on your coffee, or calling your current girlfriend by the name of the previous one. Spaniards also use empanada or berza to describe this error-prone state of mind.
On Wednesday night, the Spanish squad displayed a sensational caraja from the first minute of the match. We saw excellent players play like mediocre footballers even when their dedicated rivals were not intervening: poor passing, worse positioning, terrible play selection. Even Xavi Hernández looks ordinary in a day of caraja. If your opponent is focused and knows how to play their cards, as it was the case with the US, the match becomes quite challenging.
On top of that, luck will never go your way in a day of caraja: a half-hearted shot parried by your goalkeeper would hit the post and head for the corner flag in a normal day, but in a day of caraja it will go in. ON a normal day the referee would award a penalty if your playmaker is pushed from behind in scoring position, but will wave play on in a day of caraja. Yesterday was a quintessential caraja day, and only extreme dedication can help you to win matches in those days.
2: Lack of respect for the opponent
I spent the hours prior to the match at the national team hotel in Bloemfontein. I have never seen such a relaxed atmosphere before the semi-final of a FIFA tournament. Even though all of Spain's public statements had recognised the US as a worthy opponent, it felt like the Spaniards were preparing a friendly game for a philanthropic cause.
Supporters were taking pictures with Del Bosque and several players among surprisingly lax security measures. I talked with the representative of the main sponsor of the national team. "Isn't this too quiet?", I asked him. "Other than the tactical chat, they haven't spoken about the match more than half an hour in the last three days", he answers. "I'd rather be playing Italy, they wouldn't be this relaxed".
The attitude within the media wasn't different. We had only booked hotels for the final in Johannesburg, and even your usually superstitious correspondent broke several unwritten rules to avoid bad omens: I spoke about the game like a sure win with several friends, created a file with ideas for my article on the final and didn't wear my (still unwashed) lucky jersey from Euro 2008 to the match. I should have known better.
3: The wrong formation
In my previous article, I wrote wonders about Vicente del Bosque's array of tactical options. Our gaffer chose the wrong one for this match, or rather Mr Bradley was ready to exploit its weak points.
When Spain apply a 4-4-2 with Cesc Fábregas on the right, he actually roams towards the middle, leaving the right flank open for Sergio Ramos to go forward. This is very similar to Real Madrid's approach back when del Bosque was the gaffer, with Zidane as a fake left midfielder and Roberto Carlos taking care of the left wing.
This approach requires a very disciplined full back (which Roberto Carlos was only to a limited extent), and a great defensive midfielder (Claude Makelele) to cover whatever gaps when the other team counter attacks and the flank is open.
In the current Spanish squad, Sergio Ramos (see factor #4) clearly can't play the Roberto Carlos role, and Xabi Alonso is still far from being a Marcos Senna in defensive tasks. Bradley understood this and, especially during the first half, his team punished Spain every time Ramos went forward, while del Bosque was slow in adjusting the side (and also unlucky because Santiago Cazorla was simply horrendous when he replaced Cesc).
4: Sergio Ramos
Let the record show that I texted a friend of mine as early as minute 15 of the first half asking him what Ramos was doing on the pitch. As explained earlier, the US gaffer decided to give him plenty of space offensively to exploit his back at the counter attack, and Sergio naively swallowed the bait. The US caught Spain's defence out of place at least four times until Altidore scored, in all cases because Ramos wasn't where he should.
His stellar participation in the US' second goal brought me back (not very fond) memories of Christian Karembeu. The Frenchman will always be remembered by Real Madrid fans for three reasons: his collection of trophies, his spectacular wife, and the Karembina.
In 1999, during a Liga match at the Santiago Bernabéu, Karembeu decided to avoid a corner kick for opponent side Celta by backheeling the ball into the path of a Galician striker, who easily scored. The Karembina, meaning an assist from a defender to a rival striker, was hence born. It had been some time since I last saw one, and now I can thank Sergio for his generosity (and yes, I am really bitter).
5. The silly season
The day before the match, Jorge Valdano stated that Real Madrid had paid Golden Ball money for Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká, and that David Villa did not belong to that group. Even if Valdano's statement is accurate, its timing was terrible. Villa played like he had to win the match by himself to prove Valdano and Real Madrid wrong, and was selfish beyond belief.
Fernando Torres was quickly infected by Villa's selfishness virus. We rarely saw collective play between the strikers during the whole game, a strange feat in a side that base all their approach in smart passing.
When you combine all those factors in one give match, it is hard to win. On top of that, if you are facing a team that had nothing to lose after their miraculous qualification for the semi-finals and who clearly knew what to do at every instance of the match, you're in serious trouble.
Del Bosque's words during the press conference point at the right direction: this national team is young and should grow further until the World Cup. This shocking defeat has "overconfidence" written all over it, while the old Armada's failures were a mixture of incompetence, fear to win and bad luck.
Hopefully the players will have learned the lesson for the upcoming World Cup. In any case, they have to go back to Rustenburg to play for the third spot on Sunday, which feels like a harsh enough punishment for them.