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Last night in Salvador, the 2014 World Cup finals kicked into a gear in a manner that few would have predicted before a ball was kicked. It’s easy, when exposed to te calcified culture of club football, to forget that dynasties come and go over time, but nothing can demonstrate the relentless passing of time like the end of an era for a great international football team and the manner in which Spain were put to the sword by the Netherlands yesterday evening invited precisely that thought. Perhaps it will come to be understood that this was the beginning of the end for a great Spanish team. On the other hand, however, it’s far from inconceivable that this will turn out to have been little more than a blip. We shall see.
In almost every respect, this was a match for the ages. It took almost half an hour to warm up, but when it did, it was worth the wait. Diego Costa hoodwinked Stefan de Vrij into a reckless tackle inside the Dutch penalty area and happily accepted the reward when de Frij swallowed the bait. Xabi Alonso’s penalty kick was too strong for the Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, who did at least guess to dive the right way. Normal service, we assumed, was continuing unabated. The course of the remainder of the match pivoted on one minute as the half came to a close. At one end of the pitch, David Silva broke clear but saw his shot palmed away from danger by Cillessen. Within a minute, the Dutch implemented a moment of rare beauty, perhaps the goal of the tournament within barely twenty-four hours of it starting.
For all the enthusiasm for tiki taka, the Dutch equaliser came directly from Route One. This, however, was not merely a long ball pumped down the middle of the pitch for a striker to scamper onto. Daley Blind collected the ball barely five yards inside the Spanish half of the pitch, and sent forward an exquisite long diagonal pass which Robin Van Persie, having escaped the clutches of his marker, stooped before to send a glorious diving header over Iker Casillas and into an open goal. It was a moment of skill that cleansed the palate of the bad taste left by cynical Dutch performance at the 2010 World Cup Final and brought to mind the great Dutch team of 1974 at their improvisational best.
The second half began amid a downpour that would go on to last the entirety of the second half for Spain. Another long ball over the top of the Spanish defence allowed Arjen Robben to briefly toy with Casillas before driving the Netherlands into the lead after eight minutes of the second half had been played, and Van Persie even offered a warning of what was yet to come in rattling Casillas’ crossbar before a looping free kick from the left was bundled over the line at the far post by de Frij, and the game was killed as anything like a contest with twenty minutes left to play when Casillas mis-controlled a back pass and allowed Van Persie to roll the ball into an open goal to increase the Dutch lead to four goals to one. The symbolism of Spain’s long-serving – and ordinarily highly reliable – goalkeeper suffering such an abherration hung thick in the air.
There was more of the same to follow. With ten minutes left to play, the seemingly indefatigable Robben chased onto a through-ball past an apparently exhausted Sergio Ramos and took the ball around Casillas in the manner of a cat playing with a wounded bird before rolling it into the goal to complete Spain’s humiliation. This wasn’t merely a defeat for Spain. This was every neurosis brought to life, shoulders slumped, players carrying the thousand yard stares of a group of condemned men. They now face an uphill battle just to get through the group stage of the competition, and even if they do so it’s likely that they will now have to face the host nation in Belo Horizonte in the next round.
If Spain were defeated with layers of embarrassment and symbolism last night, then their group’s other beaten team, Australia, at least emerge from their loss at the hands of Chile with their heads held high. Two early Chilean goals scored amid chaotic Australian defending had hinted that this match could become similarly one-sided to that which had preceded it, but Tim Cahill pulled a goal back and Australia looked like the better team for large spells of the second half before Chile added a flattering third goal in the final stages of the match. Australia had travelled to Brazil with perhaps their weakest squad since their first to qualify for the tournament in 1974, and their chances of qualification already seem remote, but they played with courage and determination, and their supporters should be proud of their performance.
Finally, in the first match of the day Mexico beat Cameroon by a goal to nil in a match that might also be claimed as a result for the weather and justice. In conditions which reminded those of us conditioned to a European climate that there is rain and then there is rain, s solitary second half goal after just over an hour had been played from Oribe Peralta was enough to register Mexico a win, after Giovani Dos Santos had been on the receiving end of two incorrect calls in the first half ruling out goals. Samuel Eto’o thudded a shot against an upright by way of retaliation for Cameroon, Group A now looks like being a two-way contest between Mexico and Croatia to cling onto Brazil’s coat-tails. “Still, though,” the Cameroon team might well be forgiven for thinking this morning, “at least we’re not Spain.” We could all be forgiven for thinking that this morning.
The chances are that you’ve seen this already, but we might have expected a little better from such a venerable publication as Time Magazine, who allowed this, umm, thing to be published on their website last week. If it’s meant to be satire, then it’s merely playing up to a tired and lazy stereotype of Americans which is an insult to those who love the game in that country. If it isn’t, then the writer is fulfilling that stereotype himself. Either way, enjoy the extra $300 that you made from the click-throughs, Time Magazine. It’s come at the cost of a little of your credibility.
There was a time, of course, when Spain were the perennial under-achievers of international football, and our blast form the past this morning comes from what was possibly the team’s greatest World Cup performance from those many years. In 1986, Denmark cruised through the group stages, winning all three of their matches with performances that included putting six goals past Uruguay, as well as beating both Scotland and West Germany. They were expected to cruise past Spain in their Second Round match in León, but had reckoned without Emilio Butragueño.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
This Spain Denmark match is exactly why I advised against betting on the Dutch when a curiously large number of friends suggested they’d be “worth a bet.” In 1998, Denmark themselves did a 4-1 demolition job on the ultra-fancied Nigerians – a game which should have finished Taribo West’s FOOTBALL career, let alone international one…but didn’t (sorry, Derby fans). So, SOMEONE is going to expose the Dutch defence for the borderline shambles that it is. The Netherlands themselves were hotly fancied in Euro 2008, only to be dismantled by a shoulder-shrugging Andrei Arshavin in the semis. Hope someone (ANYone) other than Russia does it this time.
The key question about the Netherlands is yet to be answered, of course. We were informed last night that their most experienced defender, Ron Vlaar, had only 24 caps, which wasn’t exactly a “hatful.” So, if 24 caps isn’t a hatful…how BIG is the hat? All these questions and more, here on 200%.
Its OK. I’m going now.