Steven Beacom: Spain can still be World Cup golden boys
We expected something special when Spain made their World Cup bow. And stunning was exactly what we got.
Just not in the way we or Spain, for that matter, had hoped.
Spain 0-1 Switzerland was without question the biggest shock of an underwhelming tournament so far and one of the biggest surprises in recent World Cup memory.
Let’s put this into context.
Spain are European champions, and qualified for South Africa by winning 10 out of 10 group games.
Before last night, they had only been defeated once in 41 matches and can boast world class players like Fernando Torres, David Villa, Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas.
Switzerland have Philippe Senderos and en route to taking their place in the finals, they lost at home to Luxembourg!
This should have been a stroll for the Spaniards, who along with the Swiss, were the final team to play in the first phase of group matches.
A cunning plan from FIFA. Knowing that most of the early games would be cautious and uninspiring affairs they decided to save the best to last.
They did, as Switzerland gave us the finest defensive performance the competition will see.
Yes, most of us would prefer to see free flowing, precision passing sides like Spain succeed, but the Swiss players and their canny coach Ottmar Hitzfeld deserve immense credit for their commitment to the task, organisation and determination not to crack when glory beckoned.
The 52nd minute goal they scored may have been farcical with Saint Etienne’s Gelson Fernandes, who couldn’t cut it at Manchester City, taking advantage of a dreadful mix up between Iker Casillas and his defence, but it will be celebrated in Zurich more than another Roger Federer win at Wimbledon next month.
The 62,000 spectators inside the Moses Mabhida stadium were so amazed when Fernandes scored that even the vuvuzelas fell silent. Well, for a second anyway.
Casillas was at fault. It begs the question if Liverpool’s Pepe Reina is considered the best goalkeeper in the world, how is he only number two for Spain?
Unlike others who go behind, the Spanish maintained their footballing philosophy, passing and moving, moving and passing, but failed to do it with that air of authority and speed of thought that normally leaves teams chasing shadows.
Only really Alonso, who shook the crossbar with a blistering strike from distance, looked like providing that decisive moment. Barcelona's Xavi and Iniesta, and this is as rare as a decent game at this World Cup, were found wanting.
When Torres came on in the second half with Spain trailing, it woke them up a little, but frustratingly they went back for a siesta, as if exhausted by the efforts of the Swiss defence.
Some have labelled the current Spanish side as the new Brazil because they play the beautiful game. Me? I just see them as the new Spain.
The old one entertained too but didn’t have the mental strength to go all the way, unlike Vincente del Bosque’s boys, who showed they had substance to go with the style by winning the 2008 European Championships, their first major triumph in 44 barren years.
Last night they reverted to their bad old ways and those bad old days which rightly saw them labelled as the game’s great underachievers.
We’ve now seen all the big guns play. Germany, who hammered the Aussies, were the best of a bad bunch. Argentina, Brazil and Holland showed flashes of class, but no more, in less than convincing victories, while England, France, Italy and Portugal all disappointed in lacklustre draws.
Out of all the potential winners, Spain were the only side to have lost. They have time to recover and should still make the knockout stages when the fun really starts.
But here’s a sobering thought for them — no-one has ever won the World Cup having lost their opening game.
Even so, I wouldn’t rule them out just yet. Like the tournament, I expect them to improve.