It was the 1998 World Cup, held at France when my fascination for the Spanish national team grew from admiration to unconditional support. Live coverage of European club football had started entering Indian homes and fascinated by Real Madrid and Barcelona’s galaxy of stars, Spain became my third favourite national team .. after Argentina and the then attack minded Dutch team (who incidentally had a plethora of players employed with FC Barcelona).
Spain came into that tournament as ‘dark horses’. The same tag they carried in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 too! Disappointing fans, each and every time. Yet, there was hope. Germany coach Berti Vogts had lavished praise, “I wish we had the talent and flair that (forwards) Raul, Kiko, Alfonso and Morientes bring for Spain”.
Real Madrid stalwarts Raul and Hierro got Spain off to a good start as they raced to a 2-1 lead over Nigeria with twenty minutes remaining. The familiar plot followed soon afterwards .. even before the final whistle of that game was blown. Defensive and goalkeeping howlers ended that match 2-3 in favour of the ecstatic Nigerians. Spain were the better team yet again, but lost, yet again. The Iberian Armada now had to win vs Paraguay to stay in World Cup 1998. But inspired by 33-year-old captain and goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, Paraguay held on for a 0-0 draw. Spain were the better team, yet again, became an irritating comment to hear. The cameras then zoomed in on Fernando Hierro’s dejected face. His expressive eyes remained with me. Hierro has never won a trophy with Spain – suitably labelled then as ‘perennial underachievers’.
The Real Madrid Lopetegui fiasco
When the irresponsible Julen Lopetegui got sacked, hours before World Cup 2018 was about to kick off (for thrusting in contract negotiations and signing with an oh-too-eager Real Madrid, over and above the country’s prime objective) and Fernando Hierro became elevated as head coach, my mind went back to his dejected face of 1998. By this time, I had put punts everywhere for Spain to win the title. Undefeated for two years, thrashed a formidable Italy in qualifiers, they looked the real deal. In Diego Costa, they had a fighter desperate to win with Spain, to prove that his affinity switch from Brazil was worth the gamble. I put him as my man to finish the tournament with the Golden Boot.
Galaxy of Achievers
Then there was Andres Iniesta’s farewell event – unarguably the second most loved player amongst neutrals. Only Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup be a more loved event than Iniesta lifting the Jules Rimet trophy. That man, who got Spain their only World Cup in 2010 – loved by all, loathed by none. Surely, Iniesta would finish his World Cup career better than Zidane – I thought. Spanish club teams conquering every trophy in Europe this season was another positive sign – Atletico Madrid won the Europa League; Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League and three more trophies; FC Barcelona finished with a double. This was a nation of footballers at peak confidence levels. All requisite ingredients fell in place. No team had better pedigree coming into the event. Spain looked strongest for the World Cup 2018. After the group stages, I was leading the World Cup Prediction Competition in my office. If Spain reach the final, I would be winning that competition … that’s bragging rights for four years guaranteed! I seemed all set and fired up!
Back to being perennial underachievers
And yet sone of the fears came true. All of 74% possession, 1174 passes, 91% passing accuracy and 25 attempts came down to null. Russia had only one shot at goal – enough to eliminate a team who had a clear path to make to the finals. Spain are undefeated for two years. They were undefeated at this World cup too. They didn’t deserve to exit. But a decade after Barcelona players (and Pep Guardiola influence) got Spain two Euro trophies and one World Cup (2010), Spain are back to where they belong… ‘perennial underachievers’.
Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo in an online poll had 70% respondents blaming Real Madrid for reason for defeat. Luis Rubiales (president of Royal Spanish federation) and Julen Lopetegui together got 20% of the blame. Madrid based AS poll results weren’t much different. Respondents blamed Rubiales 53% and Florentino Perez 25% as reasons for defeat. All these poll results pointing to that string of bad decisions from selfish Lopetegui, arrogant Real Madrid and rash Rubiales. People hardly blamed the players or the manager although for me, those defeatist eyes of Hierro have come back again.
The poll results mattered little to me. Am devastated. I have lost the spring in my steps, didn’t feel like talking to anybody today, cancelled my family dinner outing too and don’t feel like participating in any World Cup related competitions. All those nights striving to stay awake for the 2am SGT matches, the internet searches anticipating game buildups and every World Cup schedule that excited me before, now seem like a curse around. Waiting for the next Euro and Copa tournaments seem like eternity now. Am now looking forward to the onset of the Indian Cricket team tour to England.
Messi and his messy team
Spain’s exit bothered me more than Argentina’s. The Albiceleste were just about an above average team formed with players, many of whom I couldn’t connect to. I had little memory of players like Armani, Caballero, Salvio, Meza, Pavon, Perez, Lo Celso, Tagliafico, Acuna and Ansaldi. At most, I knew their existence during Argentina’s torrid qualification campaign. There was no way I could root for either of them. The heartbeats stayed only with Messi, Di Maria, Mascherano, Otamendi and a pair of strikers who disappoint more often than not – Higuain & Aguero. Argentina had been lacklustre since the day Messi announced his retirement in 2016 and then did a useless U-turn. They huffed, puffed and embarrassed throughout the qualifiers, the friendlies and the World Cup group stages. Then they brought in their best game in the do or die match. France were favourites in that R16 encounter and there is no shame getting knocked out by a much superior team after taking things to a 4-3 level thriller. Argentina’s exit was expected sooner or later, and it happened. It was sad, but not depressive. It only begged one question. If an unfancied Russian team could motivate themselves to play out of their skins and beat mighty Spain, why couldn’t Argentina inflict the same on France? Why do my teams only need to get kicked out?
Spain’s talent pool
Spain weren’t unfancied like Argentina. Their players not picked for the World Cup would made a stronger XI than Argentina’s first team. Morata, Pedro, Alonso, Fabregas, Mata, Herera, Martinez, Bellerin, Roberto, Bartra, Parejo and Callejon would just need a goalkeeper to form a team good enough to reach quarter-finals of this World Cup. Or better! But alas, its all in speculation now. The World Cup is over for me and for most of the Indian origin fans. Spain and Portugal are often backup teams for Indian fans who feast on Brazil and Argentina. Out of these four names, only Brazil remain. Germany are out too. Modern English Premier League fans may have some soft spot for England and Belgium. But that is that. The day Brazil goes out of this World Cup, this mega-spectacle event will be over for India.
World Cup over for most Indian fans
It has been a painful and heartbreaking world cup. The limited times I screamed out of joy can be counted on my fingers. The day after Spain exited, I returned to my computer and the first thing I put on Google was ‘Guardiola‘. There are theories that since seven Pep Guardiola players have won Euro 2012, World Cup 2010 (in both cases, Barcelona players starting for Spain) and World Cup 2014 (Bayern Munich players starting for Germany), this could just be England’s year. Four players from Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are in the English squad. The next two words I Googled were ‘Barcelona transfers’ and ‘Man City transfers’.
Yes, awaiting the club football season to start.
Unless Gabriel Jesus, Phillipe Coutinho, Kevin De Bruyne, John Stones, Raheem Sterling or Kyle Walker (in short, all remaining Barcelona and Manchester City players) are playing the World Cup Final!