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