“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” Warren Buffet had once said. If you add up all the seconds spent following the foul committed on Chile’s Alexis Sanchez by Spain’s Xabi Alonso late in the first half, right until the point when the resultant free kick ended at the back of Spain’s net for the second time on Wednesday, Buffet’s estimation of five minutes is about right.
For the last six years, La Roja were a generation-defining side; having done what no team had in the history of football by winning two continental majors (Euro ’08 and ’12) on either side of a World Cup triumph. The reigning champions arrived in Brazil as odds-on favourites — in ranking and with the bookmakers, research teams and oracles — to defend their title, with at least 11 squad members who had raised all three trophies. Eighteen had won the last two.
None of them, with their weighty reputations in tow, however, could stop a most tragic occurrence. Spain had become the first team to crash out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The curse of Maracana
It wasn’t the first tragedy to occur at the Maracanã.
The last time Brazil had hosted a World Cup, Rio de Janeiro’s fabled estadio, the Maracanã, had consumed the hosts with a 2-1 loss to Uruguay in front of 200,000 grieving spectators. It was called the Maracanãzo, or the Maracanã Tragedy.
On Wednesday, as 14th-ranked Chile beat Spain 2-0 in front of a far smaller audience of 60,000 just days after the 2010 runners-up Holland had avenged their final defeat from four years ago with a resounding 5-1 win, the Maracanã burped out Iker Casillas’s men. And their meaty reputations.
“I don’t know how I can go on with my life,” said a Spanish photographer, who did not wish to be named. Based in Dubai since his divorce last year, the photographer claimed that snapping pictures of his beloved national side healed him better than psychiatric therapy. “I put my life’s savings into covering this World Cup. It was my light at the end of the tunnel, a tunnel that saw a bad marriage.” Now the tunnel is dark once more.
“The only saving grace is I didn’t have to watch it live,” he added, just before the Cameroon-Croatia match kicked off in Manaus. “I had made all my bookings for Spain’s knock-out games — Round of 16, quarter-finals, semis, final. But the knock-out happened before the knock-outs. And I’ve got to live with it here in Brazil.”
In the history of the World Cups, Spain aren’t the first defending champions to get knocked out in the first round. Fifth such occurrence, if you’re interested. And they won’t be the last either. In fact, champs exiting early seems to be the trend of the 21st century, with three of the last four winners showing up as shadows of their victorious selves.
France didn’t make it past the first hurdle in Korea-Japan ’02 and neither did Italy in South Africa ’10. But what makes this loss more tragic for the common Spanish supporter — apart from the fact that Casillas’s men had been far more dominant and had reigned supreme for a far longer period of time than any of the rest — is the ignominious nature of its arrival.
From Treble to terrible
Consider this. During their ‘treble’ (a period spanning 19 matches over two Euros and a World Cup), Spain had conceded all of six goals. In just two games in Brazil, goalie Casillas — once known as the Rock of Gibraltar — has let in seven.
A few of his contemporaries, such as former England ’keeper David James, jumped to his rescue. “Casillas has to be the envy of most, if not all keepers! WC exit was not his fault, Spain just aren’t good enough anymore,” James tweeted.
Casillas, though, wasn’t so forgiving of himself. “The first thing I have to do is offer a mea culpa. This is the worst performance of my career,” he said on his arrival at the press conference. “We have to say sorry. Holland were very good, we were the complete opposite. We let down our people’s expectations.”
Much was, of course, expected from the all-conquering Spanish side. Apart from international success, a club from Spain had won three out of the last six Champions League titles, with an all-Madrid final this time. To get Atletico Madrid there and win them the domestic title after a period of 18 years, breaking Barcelona and Real Madrid’s two-horse dominance, Brazilian-born-Spaniard (naturalised) Diego Costa had done enough to be slotted in the ‘Stars to Watch Out for’ section in most World Cup build-ups.
However, in the 126 minutes he played over two matches, Costa didn’t have a single shot on goal, let alone a goal itself. When Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque was asked to analyse his forward’s performance, he said: “I don’t want to reflect immediately. We need to have time to think about it. When something negative like this happens at a World Cup, it always has consequences but I don’t want to get into the analysis yet.”
Those consequences might just involve sacking many ageing legends, a list that prominently includes 33-year old Casillas. Just before he left the press conference in Rio, the Spanish captain was posed the tough one.
“Will this be your last match for Spain? someone asked. Casillas thought for a second, nodded his head solemnly and said: “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Ask the fans on Brazil’s streets what went wrong and they say the same thing. Only, with a smile.