There’s an old Chinese proverb that says you never recognise change whilst you’re going through it. For the past half a dozen years or so, we’ve lived through a period when Spanish football, both in terms of clubs and international has become the benchmark by which all others are – usually unfavourably – measured. Whether it’s a case of Barcelona and Real Madrid having the best two players in the world in their teams, the Blaugrana dominating the Champions’ League, or the Roja hoovering up World Cups and European Championships, plus an assortment of ‘Age level’ competitions like some silverware obsessive on heat, the Spanish have lead world football. But all things are transient. The Hungarians dominated football in the fifties, the Brazilians in the sixties and seventies, then the Dutch, followed by Germany and France and, at the time, the domination looked assured, looking back now however, it’s clear that these were just phases. Now, there’s a growing murmur in the football world, that Spain’s time at the top may be heading the same way.
The semi-finals of the Champions’ League lit the touch paper of doubt when both Real Madrid and Barcelona returned to the Iberian peninsula form Germany after each had conceded four goals in a beating that could have been so much worse. Whilst Madrid put up a better show in the home leg, it was more a cussed refusal to be beat sort of performance, rather a game in which the Spanish format triumphed over Dortmund’s set up. Whilst over in Catalunya, Barcelona appeared to lie down and let Bayern take their elegant time in picking them apart with a further three goals to add to the humiliation. At this stage however, the crisis – if that’s what it is – had not spread to the national team. The Roja continued to deal with all comers, extending their unbeaten run in competitive games to 29 – until last night.
Sometimes three goal victories can give a false impression of a game. In the same competition, Spain defeated African champions Nigeria by this margin, but if their opponents had put away a few of the chances they had created, Spain’s passage would have been a lot less comfortable however. Last night however, the midfield triangle of Xavi, Inniesta and Busquets were overshadowed by the young Brazilian pair of Neymar and Oscar, ably supported by Paulinho. Sure Spain missed a penalty, but they could also have had two men sent off in the first half for ‘last man’ trips, before eventually Piquet had to go.
They say that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it’s also true that one defeat doesn’t bring the curtain down on an era of domination, plus going to play Brazil, in the Maracana, especially with the atmosphere in that troubled country at the moment, is clearly no easy task. It would be negligent however if one didn’t look at the defeats mentioned above and think that at least there’s a question being raised. For the first time in a while, Spanish football will be feeling a measure of self-doubt. Clearly, there’s every possibility that after a bit on introspection, the train will be back on the rails and running over teams again, but for now the question is whether Spain’s reign is really on the wane.