Remembering 2014: The fall of Spain’s empire

Between now and Dec. 25, will be looking back at the people, teams and moments that defined the 2014 soccer world. For Spain, the nation that came into the year as world champions on the men’s side, 2014 marked the end of an era. After three straight major titles, the Spanish were humbled in Brazil, with a 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in the team’s opening match providing the first shock of the 2014 World Cup. Andy Brassell looks at the state of the reigning European champions as we approach 2015:

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The year 2014 will long stick in Iberian memories and – bizarrely – Spain’s disastrous World Cup defense probably won’t even be counted as its nadir. That came later, in October, when La Furia Roja were turned over by Slovakia in Zilina – a qualifying defeat coming eight years and two days after its last, when Luis Aragones’ team was beaten 2-0 in Sweden in a Euro 2008 qualifier.

Defeats against quality opposition, like Argentina and Portugal in high-profile friendlies, or even against Brazil in the Confederations Cup, were part of the landscape even when Vicente del Bosque’s side was looking imperious. Being beaten fair and square in a qualifier against the Slovaks, however, meant something else. Spain, it appeared, was back amongst the mere mortals of the soccer world.

That this represented the standout low point is just this writer’s opinion, of course. Many will disagree and goodness, there has been some competition for the title. The Slovakia result meant that Spain had lost four of its last six matches (they numbered five defeats in 12 games in the calendar year as a whole). The pothole of that spectacular defeat to the Netherlands in Salvador had become a ditch in which Spain was well and truly stuck.

After the defeat that topped it all off, the 1-0 loss to Germany in Vigo in a November friendly sealed by a late goal from Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos, del Bosque remarked with characteristic understatement that 2014 had “not been a great year.” The FIFA world rankings may only be taken as gospel in few places but seeing del Bosque’s team in ninth in the latest table, published at the end of November (behind Portugal and Belgium), jarred.

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Having been criminally undervalued for the majority of his coaching career – notably in the near-four-year spell with Real Madrid in which he snared the Champions League twice – and lauded to the heavens in the wake of Spain’s recital in the Euro 2012 final victory over Italy, del Bosque has a very different remit now. Cast as a kindly caretaker, shuffling superstars with a less-is-more approach, he is now charged with a rebuild. Even if the demands are a contrast to the past ones, his sanguine nature suggests he is the right man to see it through until he steps down as scheduled after the Euro 2016 finals.

If we take the defeat in Stockholm back in 2006 as an omen (with Spain having gone on to lift their first trophy of the modern era in Vienna at the end of that campaign) then there is no need to shelve all ambition just yet. At the very least, it is worth remembering that Spain is still the champion of Europe, and that it will be going for a third successive title in France when summer 2016 rolls around. However that tournament – and thoughts of Spain going deep into it – are a long way off today.

On the surface, it may seem melodramatic to suggest that del Bosque is charged with stripping out the building and presiding over a total refit. Of the XI that stunned the world anew in Kiev that evening in July 2012, the only certain absentees for the title defense in France will be the internationally-retired Xabi Alonso and Xavi, even if Iker Casillas – for example – will be lucky to make it ahead of David de Gea.

More representative of the reality, perhaps, is that only five of the starters from Kiev (Casillas, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets) began the last competitive match of the year, the 3-0 win over Belarus. That Casillas is finally being questioned by his coach is significant – it has been made clear by del Bosque that he and de Gea are in direct competition as of now – with other squad members like Piqué also under close inspection.

Australia v Spain: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The next wave has been needed and is coming, with the Madrid-based midfielders Isco and Koke to the fore. It has become abundantly clear in recent months just how highly valued the former is by Carlo Ancelotti, while the latter ended the Champions League group stage this season having laid on more goals than anybody else. The pair’s confidence and swagger is something that has been missing. Other stars from the domestic scene have added more of this, such as Valencia’s bright forward Paco Alcácer. The vibrant forward Nolito (of Celta Vigo) and Málaga’s resourceful midfielder Nacho Camacho made their debuts against Germany.

There are more challenges to come, clearly. When we talk about the rot predating the World Cup, we must emphasize that replacing Carles Puyol has proved highly problematic – incidentally, Barcelona is encountering exactly the same difficulties as the national team in this regard. That Diego Costa is a huge upgrade on Fernando Torres (at international as well as club level) is hardly up for debate, but it was significant to hear such an anti-dramatist as del Bosque admit that the Chelsea man had played with “some anxiety” since joining La Selección’s ranks.

The tests won’t be long in coming. Spain get back to work in March with a taxing Euro 2016 qualifier against Ukraine, followed by a trip to face its Dutch tormentor in an Amsterdam friendly. The team will be forced to move on. If 2014 was the year the empire collapsed, the foundations had already been wobbling for a while before. Del Bosque is at least balanced enough to start building slowly from the bottom up.

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Photo credits, from top to bottom: Ian Walton/Getty Images; Quinn Rooney/Getty Images