Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Can Spain Beat the World Cup Jinx in 2014?

Since 1930, only Italy and Brazil have won successive FIFA World Cups. Can Spain defy history and defend their title?

Published: Jan 6, 2014 06:49:39 AM IST
Updated: Jan 2, 2014 01:00:25 PM IST
Can Spain Beat the World Cup Jinx in 2014?
Image: Getty Images
Spain’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas raises the trophy after the team won the 2010 World Cup

At the 2010 World Cup, there were times, honestly, when one looked for Lionel Messi in the Spain starting XI.

It looked so much like Barcelona; you couldn’t help but think that Messi must have been there, lurking in the maze of legs in the opposition defence. See, Xavi has just got the ball from Sergio Busquets, there’s Andres Iniesta making a run, Pedro’s waiting out to the left … oh, it’s David Villa. Right. Spain. Not Barcelona.

It’s another matter that Villa too had been signed on by Barcelona just before that tournament. Perhaps the club also didn’t like the idea of moves ending with a non-Barca player!

Twenty of Spain’s squad of 23 in the South Africa World Cup played in La Liga; seven of them were Barcelona boys. And six of the players in the starting XI were Nou Camp regulars. (Victor Valdes, the goalkeeper, was the only one not to play, because Iker Casillas was the obvious preference.)

But was it really Spain? The game they played was so tiki-taka, wasn’t it?

Since July 2008, bar eight months spread over three spells, Spain have been the best football team in the world. In this period, Spain won Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012.

In 2008, Pep Guardiola took up the reins of Barcelona. Between then and the end of the 2011-12 season, when Guardiola left, Barcelona won La Liga three seasons in a row—2008–09, 2009–10, 2010–11—the Copa Del Rey twice, the Spanish Super Cup thrice, the UEFA Champions League twice and the FIFA Club World Cup twice.

Since Guardiola left, Barcelona have won La Liga once, but their pre-eminent position in Spain, and Europe, has been a tad shaky. Spain’s qualification for World Cup 2014 was never in doubt and they went through without a hitch. Still, they don’t look as infallible as they did four years ago when, even if they didn’t win every match with a sackful of goals, they played the games their way—when the opponents were suckered into playing catch up—practically every time. Interestingly, when we saw Spain in Euro 2012, they had started to move away from tiki-taka to a slightly more direct, wing-based style of play: Winds of change, anyone?

Which brings us to Brazil 2014.

Italy, in 1934 and 1938, and Brazil, in 1958 and 1962, are the only teams to have won successive World Cup trophies. That aside, Holland reached successive finals in 1974 and 1978, Argentina won in 1986 and finished second in 1990, and West Germany reached three finals in a row: 1982, 1986 and 1990, winning only the last one.

The tournament moved to a 24-team format in 1982 and then a 32-team format in 1998, and since then, the standout favourites have never really won the tournament, before Spain did in 2010.

Spain, however, are the Number Ones in every footballing way, though the ‘home’ factor places Brazil ahead of them for the bookmakers. (Argentina, interestingly, are second, and Germany third, with Spain at four. Doesn’t sound right, does it? But bookmakers are likely to know better than you or me, I’d say.)

If there is a team that can sink the Spanish dream, it has to be Brazil. Under Luiz Scolari—yes, back at the helm again—the team wears a completely new look, and the core of the team, especially its attack, is in its early twenties. Neymar is just 21. At the Confederations Cup and in international friendlies, Brazil have improved in stages, step by step. And at home, hopes will be high. Scolari, in fact, announced after the 5-0 win over Honduras recently, “Brazil will be world champions.” Even six months ago, that claim would have sounded hollow. Not anymore.

More than the Brazil threat, though, is the matter of Spain themselves. They are lucky, as Brazil were in the ’50s and ’60s, in not having to face themselves, but are Spain already feeling the heat of carrying the mantle of ‘defending champions’?

When the draws for the 2014 World Cup were announced recently, Spain were placed in Group B with Holland (their opponents in the 2010 final), Chile and Australia. “Nobody said it would be easy,” tweeted Gerard Pique. The reference, interestingly, was not to Holland; it was about Chile, No. 15 in the rankings, but a team Vicente del Bosque, Spain’s coach, calls, “without doubt one of the hardest opponents we could get; amongst the strongest sides in South America.”

Can Spain Beat the World Cup Jinx in 2014?
Image: Buda Mendes / Getty Images
From left: Brazil’s Maicon, Paulinho, Neymar, Jo and Bernard celebrate a goal against Australia during the International friendly between Brazil and Australia in September 2013 in Brasilia, Brazil

No team, however big and strong, wants it tough at the outset; it doesn’t get any easier after that, of course, but big teams like to ease into their campaigns. “We have to try and win the group,” said del Bosque, a trifle grumpily. Obviously. But it’s a bit more than that: If Spain finish second, their second round opponents are likely to be Brazil; finish first, and it could be either Croatia or Mexico or Cameroon. There isn’t a moment to lose, come those first three 90-minute games. The intensity, as it should be, will be well above average from the first whistle.

Importantly, the Spaniards know how to win. Indeed, it’s not tough to stick one’s neck out and say that, of all the current teams out there, they are the only ones that know how to win. It helps that the squad hasn’t changed dramatically in the four intervening years. The key players all remain, slightly older, but none of them over the hill yet. Only a handful of them, like Casillas and Xavi and Villa, are past 30; and not by much. And it’s unbelievable but true that Iniesta is not yet 30, while Pique, Busquets, David Silva, Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro, Jesús Navas, Juan Mata and Álvaro Negredo, among others, are all between 25 and 28. Age frauds? Not quite. They were just outstanding footballers very early in their careers and have now all blossomed into even better players—talent plus experience, right?—in their footballing middle ages.

The other thing that sets Spain apart from the other biggies—although Germany too have reason to feel that way—is the depth in their squad. In Casillas, Valdes, and Pepe Reina, they have three stellar goalkeepers. Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Alvaro Arbeloa, Javi Martinez and Cesar Azpilicueta in the back would make any coach happy. The midfield is legendary. And if there were some concerns upfront, with David Villa not quite the force he once was and Fernando Torres not always reliable, the emergence of Diego Costa—the big reason why Atletico Madrid are tied with Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table at the time of writing this—has changed the balance, while Pedro, Negredo and Fernando Llorente are always in the mix.

Spain, England, Germany and Italy are the only four teams that are made up mostly of players that ply their trade in their home leagues. That brings more and more players under the microscope, creates a wider talent pool, and allows the best players to play a lot together over the years as, usually, it’s the two to four big clubs that sign these players. Spain’s mainstays have spent years playing together at various levels of the national team, and much of the team plays their club football either at Barcelona or at Real Madrid. Experience, understanding, skill-set assimilation and, obviously, exploiting each others’ talent and ability: Spain have all of those. Germany are the only other team with a comparable combination.

But there’s a reason Brazil and Argentina are getting better odds at the bookmakers’ than Spain, or Germany: No European team has ever won a World Cup in Latin America.

But firstly, the world of football has changed a lot over the years; hardly any top Brazilian or Argentine player actually plays in their home leagues anymore. What’s the big difference then?

And secondly, only four World Cups have taken place in the continent—plus two in Mexico—and the last of those were in 1986. And Spain—Portugal even more—are probably as much at home in Brazilian conditions as they are in Europe, closely linked
as they are with the continent culturally and otherwise.

All of which adds up to this: It’s difficult to look beyond Spain at the moment, six months before the first ball is kicked. Brazil and Germany will probably be tough contenders and Argentina might just play to their ability for a change. But bar an upset of seismic proportions, a nation will defend their World Cup title successfully for only the third time in history.

(This story appears in the 10 January, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)