Dear Spain: What the hell was that?

For nearly 50 years — seriously, half a century — Spain’s reputation was a talented yet underachieving, we’ll-find-any-way-to-capitulate national side.

For 120 minutes and several penalty kick rounds, those memories came roaring back.

Seriously. What the hell?

Before going further, a caveat: Spain entered the World Cup in turmoil, and is arguably the highest-intensity national program on the planet. The media scrutiny, the expectations, all of it singes the skin of each and every player who dons the uniform, even in random friendlies nobody else cares about. Their mistakes are amplified, and that’s brutal. If us writers had a dollar for every time we misspelled a word in a story before hitting the backspace key and fixing it, we’d be richer than every star player Spain took to Russia combined.

That being said … Spain is so much more talented than the host nation it lost to Sunday morning, and so much more experienced at the highest levels of both club soccer and international soccer, it’s utterly absurd. Maybe Spain knew that.

Maybe that’s why the Spanish were so punchless for two hours, especially after an early, fluky goal went in their favor. Maybe that’s why La Furia Roja thought they could continue to get away with playing Nacho as a fullback, or letting Koke drift into all sorts of positions on the pitch where he does nothing for the setup, or playing boom-ball without a striker on the roster who’s actually decent at hold-up play. (Alvaro Morata waves hello!)

Maybe that’s why Spain passed the ball into oblivion and lulled the audience into antiquity, even when Russia equalized shortly before halftime thanks to a penalty. This wasn’t tiki-taka. This was icky-taka.

It was thoroughly unbecoming of the greatest dynasty international soccer has ever seen. Lots of the fixtures of those sides that took over the planet around the turn of the decade are still stalwarts now, including Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and plenty others who saw the pitch on Sunday.

And there was this strange malaise, this baseless assumption that 90 minutes would pass and after they did, Spain would be through to the quarters. Soccer doesn’t work like that. Spain, of ALL nations, should know it doesn’t work like that.

But they didn’t work. The imagination was lacking. The genuine threats to Russia’s net weren’t there.


The statistics were lopsided in favor of Spain. Twenty-five shots to nine. Nine shots on goal to one. Nineteen fouls to five. A possession masterclass that saw Spain complete more passes in one match than Russia had THE ENTIRE TOURNAMENT.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s the Arsene Wenger corollary, writ large. You can dominate the ball, but you aren’t dominating anything else unless that turns into goals.

Again, part of that is endemic to Spain’s identity. Calm, control, monopolization of the ball, etc. But Spain’s identity, at least to younger fans who know nothing else over the past decade, is also winning.

That didn’t happen against Russia. That didn’t happen this World Cup. That didn’t happen because despite its hallowed status, Spain was just another team in how it approached things Sunday.

What an unfitting World Cup sendoff for this generation of incredible Spaniards. What an unremarkable exit for an objectively intriguing and fun-to-watch team.

Now we get Russia in the quarterfinals, and there’s something to be said for the energy associated with the hosts making a deep run. There are certain things that can’t be ignored about the country, with its corruption and rampant bigotry and hideous social issues. Yes, we just mentioned it. No, we won’t address it further in this space. But we also won’t attach the horrific shortcomings of an entire nation to 23 soccer players who mostly just want to play the game they love, represent their homeland and be respectful.

They’re moving on. And the Spaniards are not. And with all due respect, that has to sting them way more than neutrals.

Joey Gulino is the editor of FC Yahoo and moonlights as a writer. Follow him on Twitter at @JGulinoYahoo.

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