In football the mighty sometimes also fall

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By : Fernando Duarte

Make no mistake: when players and managers talk about reduced margins and increased competitiveness in football, they are not just going through the motions. The game is more global than ever and that has obviously made it very hard for everybody to compete at the top level. Training methods are pretty much similar these days and the evolution in communication technologies means teams can study opponents thoroughly. Long gone are the days where teams could arrive at a World Cup without everybody knowing all sorts of details about them. This has led to much more leveled matches and falling goal averages in football’s prime tournament. In 1982, 2.8 goals were scored per game and in the last World Cup the average had dropped to 2.27. This is why fans and media were so excited about the rampaging start in Brazil.

In this very competitive scenarios, countries like Brazil and Germany can still boast very decent World Cup records, but many traditional footballing nations have struggled — Italy being the prime example in their journey from heaven in 2006 to hell in 2010, when as world champions they crashed and burned in the first round. It is in this context that we should look at how Spain exited the 2014 Fifa World Cup. Drawn alongside Holland, Chile and Australia, La Furia knew nothing would come easy for them, especially when locking horns with the less fancied sides in Group B. Spain were also aware opposition had time to catch up after their wonderful sequence of tournament wins that started at Euro 2008.

Spain’s competitive advantage was always bound to end because time does not forgive. Their problem was not the tiki-taka, a system that must not be consigned to history so quickly as pundits around the world want to. The main issue is that no system is immutable. Adjustments are always necessary. A horrendous exit at the group stages at England 1996 showed Brazil they needed not only to work on their tactics but also invest in fitness after European opposition ran them ragged. They still preserved fundamental characteristics of their game and came back with full force for Mexico 1970.

La Furia was caught up in a similar trap. Six years of success made them the team everybody wanted to beat and the opposition did their homework. While many commentators are now talking about arrogance and leniency, it is more likely the Spaniards’ sin was simply the belief in their philosophy. There were signs on the wall, Barcelona being trounced by Bayern Munich and the national team’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederations Cup last year being the most blatant. Crucial players like Xavi Hernandez did not have a very inspired European season ahead of the World Cup and the desperate move that was Diego Costa’s naturalization — the Spanish system was never devised to have an Old School center-forward — pointed to possible pitfalls.

Still, Spain could have fared better. Against Holland they had chances to kill the game in the first half before being hit so badly in the second. Psychologically wrecked, it would be impossible for them to do anything special against Chile and the South Americans were the worst rival they could have faced: the Chileans are on the up thanks to the guidance of Jorge Sampaoli and a group of players who are hungry enough to run till they drop, just as England and Germany found out in recent friendlies. Above all, the Chileans didn’t hesitate to go for the kill.

That was the biggest difference between what happened in the Maracana to the events in Fortaleza, where Brazil were held to a goalless draw by Mexico. Indeed that game rang all the alarm bells at the Seleção and poured a bucket of cold water over supporters dreaming of a home spectacle. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. Not only have Mexico given Brazil a hard time in recent years but they also noticed the Seleção have yet to ignite at this tournament. Thus, they did their homework: played in a 3-5-2 that simply did not give Brazil space to play. Coach Miguel Herrera has also Luiz Felipe Scolari to thank for playing Oscar out of position on the left, where his markers easily closed him down. Paulinho, so instrumental last year, looks jaded and Brazil easily lost the battle in midfield.

Brazil still created isolated chances, only to be frustrated by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s outstanding saves. After a more defensive first half, Mexico gave Brazil a scare in the second, but never really gave the impression they were going for the kill. Instead, the Mexicans resorted to a battery of long range efforts, which shows they failed to penetrate the Brazilian box. One of those efforts could have gone in but it still looked like Mexico were happy enough with the draw and the higher moral ground of denying Brazil at home, while Chile were much more incisive against Spain and could actually have left the Maracana pitch with a more resounding result.

The Mexico game was enough for Brazilians to feel quite edgy and their Monday game against Cameroon will be a much nervier affair than anybody could have predicted. While Croatia’s 4-0 demolition of the Africans means Brazil have virtually booked their place in the next round, the type of performance Brazil puts on against Samuel Eto’o could prove crucial for their hopes of winning the World Cup at home for the first time.

(Fernando Duarte is a Brazilian football writer and author of “Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup” Birlinn Books.)

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