Ken Early: Spain, bored with success, head for the beach
After winning major tournaments in 2008, 2010 and 2012, Spain are tired of dominating
The big song in France this month is “Don’t Take Me Home,” which is sung to a tune made famous by Billy Ray Cyrus with Achy Breaky Heart. But while Cyrus sang the song with a certain jauntiness, a certain playful suggestion that maybe his heart wasn’t quite as achy and breaky as all that, Don’t Take Me Home is a flat leaden dirge, the sort of mournful lament you could imagine rising into the Volga dusk as the boatmen struggled to haul a heavy barge laden with poisonous metals.
With its evocation of a post-nationalist disillusionment and economic alienation that can only be eased by substance abuse, it’s no surprise that Don’t Take Me Home is most popular with fans from dreary and politically fractious northern countries like Belgium, Wales and England.
“Don’t take me home
Please don’t take me home
I just don’t wanna go to work
I wanna stay here
And drink all ya beer (sniff all ya gear)
Please don’t, please don’t take me home”
The song hasn’t caught on with Spain’s supporters at all. On Monday their team was on its way home from the Euros with what looked suspiciously like a spring in their step. After winning the tournaments of 2008, 2010 and 2012, Spain are tired of dominating the highest level of international football.
Now the dearest ambition of the Spanish players is to have a holiday that lasts longer than three weeks, and thanks to this defeat, there’s still a chance that could happen this summer.
As the match at the Stade de France ticked into injury time, Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne hit a terrific crossfield ball to Matteo Darmian, who was moving forward in space on the right. He drove into the box and crossed between two Spanish defenders to Graziano Pelle who knocked it past the exposed David de Gea.
That was 2-0 and game over. When the whistle went, Juanfran and Pique bent over, heads down, hands resting on knees. In all honesty, they looked like men who were trying to simulate devastation while secretly being rather relieved.
After a few seconds they straightened up and gave the fans a desultory clap before making for the tunnel. If they had got a little closer, they would have seen then that most of the fans had already turned to leave. The players aren’t the only Spaniards who are bored with international football.
From the first 10 minutes you could see how this one was likely to go. Italy were sharp, aggressive, physical, direct. Spain were slow, slack, lethargic, and boring.
What explained this Spanish lethargy? Well, part of the problem is that Vicente del Bosque has run a boring camp. He picked the same starting XI for all four matches at the Euros.
Pedro was the only one who actually broke ranks and complained about what a waste of time it was to be one of the benchwarmers in this squad. It’s a safe bet that the other nine outfield players who never started are more discreet rather than less disillusioned. Del Bosque obviously thought he had found his best team, but a coach who doesn’t try to freshen up his team will find that the mood in his squad quickly goes stale.
Del Bosque’s conservatism feeds into the second problem, which is the transitional phase in which Spain seem to have been stuck for three years. The older players have nothing left to prove and the younger ones know that even if Del Bosque would let them on the pitch to try, they will probably never match up.
This team still had Iniesta and Busquets and Ramos and Pique and at least one great new talent in De Gea, but they lost their leader in Xavi, another great midfield orchestrator in Xabi Alonso, and most of their cutting edge disappeared with David Villa.
Cesc Fabregas is still there, but he cuts a sadly diminished figure, bereft of his former vitality, wandering around the pitch like a man who had just got out of bed and badly needed a coffee. You wonder what the Atletico Madrid dynamo, Koke, who was confined to the bench for 90 minutes against Italy, must think of Fabregas.
Perhaps sensing the imminence of disgrace, Spain’s captain Sergio Ramos charged about as though dizzy with testosterone, flaring his nostrils, barging his chest into opponents and swinging wildly at clearances, one of which was inches away from nestling in the roof of his own net. It was his gratuitous foul on Pelle that gave Italy the free kick from which they took the lead.
Eder smashed the shot low and David de Gea couldn’t hold it. Emanuele Giaccherini was first to the ball and deflected it sideways to Giorgio Chiellini, who bundled it in from three yards.
It was no more than Italy deserved. Their back five, with players rushing out to press whenever Spain tried to work it down the sides of the field, was frustrating Spain’s best efforts to work it out.
Not that these were Spain’s best efforts. We saw Spain’s best efforts in 2012 and 2010 and 2008. Now they play like a side that just want to go home, and if these senior players and Del Bosque have any sense, that’s where they’ll stay after this tournament. The next generation probably won’t be anywhere near as good, but it’s time to let them have their time.