Spain forced to rely on fortune
ARE SPAIN killing football? A large section of the below-capacity crowd in the Donbass Arena seemed to think so last night, despite the champions’ eventual success via penalties, whistling the men in blood-red every time they had the temerity to construct a move involving more than three or four passes.
It is a ridiculous question, of course, but one that has managed to provoke football’s most interesting philosophical debate in years.
There is subtlety to the argument that a team of artists, setting out to win through pure creativity, can be as a negative force in the game. By setting out to monopolise possession of the ball, and achieving an unprecedented degree of success, Spain’s world champions could be seen to be squeezing the life out of the idea of football as a competitive endeavour.
There is also the question of the texture of their play which in some ways adds an even more powerful element to the complaints of their critics. There is a soft, frictionless quality to the style known as tiki-taka which makes it feel as though Spain are playing in carpet slippers and which robs the game of the explosive element that has always been a part of the game.
Football has been played this way before, as anyone who remembers the Colombia of the early 90s, the team of Carlos Valderrama and his accomplices, will know. Like the current Spain, they were ball-smugglers who played in short triangles. And they were loved, too, although they were a disappointment at the 1994 World Cup, when they were expected to shine.
Spain, on the other hand, have spent the past four years as the unquestioned masters of the world game. They are also the most statistics-friendly team of all time. But at half-time came the news that their pass-completion rate was 85 per cent lower than they had managed in any of their previous matches in the tournament.
Portugal, desperate to believe their time had come at last, and with the benefit of an extra 48 hours’ rest since their quarter-final, were pushing the defending champions into the occasional untidiness and uncertainty.
This was also a night when Fernando Torres dropped a little further down the pecking order of international football.
Having started Spain’s second and third group matches, then given way for the quarter-final to the “false 9”, Cesc Fabregas, who had started the opening match, Torres last night sat on the bench as Del Bosque picked another “true 9”: Alvaro Negredo, the big 26-year-old Sevilla striker, whose significance in the scheme of things was evident when Spain hit the ball long to him straight from the kick-off.
Attempts to include him in the more characteristic short-passing exchanges appeared to expose a lack of finesse to match that of his smaller colleagues, although he did try one Zidane-style pirouette.
Portugal had started by trying to get their opponents on the back foot, as Italy had done in Spain’s opening group game. But Spain extended their extraordinary run to nine matches in the finals of the European Championships without conceding a goal.
After 55 minutes Del Bosque replaced Negredo with Fabregas. The arrival of Fabregas, and that of Jesus Navas, replacing David Silva, put some of the colour back into Spain’s shirts.
If it was a disappointing match for the neutral, with some of the great stars of the game largely frustrated in their effort to make their mark on the night, then we could perhaps blame the importance of the occasion, or the over-familiarity of the two sides. Too much of a private squabble, in fact, with an increasing amount of work for the referee as the challenges became wilder before the final shoot-out – two penalties hitting the woodwork, but one crucially favouring Spain as it found the net.