Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Legends of the Fall: A lament and look back at Spain, one of the greatest football teams on the face of the earth

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The Legends of the Fall
A lament and look back at one of the greatest football teams on the face of the earth and its eventual fall.
by rick olivares pic from marca

In the 115th minute of play in the 2010 World Cup Finals at Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa, Dutch midfielder Elijero Elia tried to break down Spanish right back Sergio Ramos.

It is in this exact moment where Cesc Fabregas, traditionally a midfielder but sometimes playing striker in Spain’s system moved in to help out his compatriot. Elia lost the ball and the Spaniards immediately went on the counter attack.

The ball was pitched to Jesus Navas who ran up the right sideline. He passed to Andres Iniesta in the central midfield who found a couple of Dutch defenders fronting him. Iniesta sent a short pass to Fabregas who had run up in support. Striker Fernando Torres then linked up on the left and the ball made its way to him. Torres sent a cross to Iniesta who was now inside the box. The cross was deflected away by Holland’s Rafael Van der Vaart who lost his balance and fell to the pitch. The weak clearance found its way to Fabregas who immediately sent back the ball to Iniesta who was now unmarked as Van der Vaart had not yet gotten back on his feet.

Iniesta seized the opportunity and blasted a powerful shot to the left past a diving Maarten Stekelenberg to bring the long, arduous and sometimes brutal match to an end, a 1-nil victory for Spain, and its first World Cup.

Iniesta took off his shirt that revealed a handwritten message to a late fallen comrade, “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros (Dani Jarque always with us)”. He was cautioned but he didn’t care. Spain had its trophy that certified them the class of world football.

Even better, Spain began to emerge after a prolonged economic slump. Life was good. Or so it was.

Four years and eight days after Spain’s spectacular triumph, Marca, Madrid’s biggest newspaper, featured Iniesta on its cover, with his left hand on his face and his back turned. The headline read: “The End. A lamentable final to the epic and glorious run of La Roja.”

Chile had just eliminated Spain, 2-nil, in their second match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil earning the distinction of being the only defending champion to flame out after only two matches. A few days earlier, Holland gained a modicum of revenge for their loss in South Africa with a masterful 5-1 victory over the erstwhile incumbents.

The loss to the Dutch could have been a fluke. After all, revenge was a powerful motivation. Despite the humiliation, Spain believed they could right their ship against Chile. Didn’t they lose to Switzerland, 1-nil to open the 2010 World Cup?

Yes, they did. In South Africa, they were realizing their greatness as they would go on to cop a third major trophy in the 2012 European Championships. Apparently, that third Euro championship was to be their high point. For in the finals of the 2013 Confederations Cup, they were defeated in embarrassing fashion, 3-nil, by a Brazil team that didn’t sit back and wait for the Spaniards to lull their opponents to sleep before attacking. The Selecao came out with a lot of energy, pressed high, and raided the passing lanes. And when the opportunity presented itself, they were physical too.

Spain went from tiki, taka to tackled.

The cracks were already evident but people chose to ignore them. During the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, Spain played eight matches where they won six and drew two. They scored 14 goals for and conceded three. It isn’t so bad except when you compare that to their 2010 qualifying record, Spain was a robust 10-0-0 en route to finding the back of the net 28 times while conceding five.

They had rousing wins – 4-1 and 3-nil over Russia, 5-0 versus New Zealand, and 10-nil over a grossly overmatched Tahiti.

Against the topsides – Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands -- they kept a clean sheet. But they had only scored one goal in each victory in itself. Scoring was a problem. Even against a tough Iraq team whose players all suit up abroad as there is no local league to participate in given the long-standing conflict in the region, Spain could only muster a 1-0 triumph.

In these two matches in Brazil, opponents scored seven goals to Spain’s solitary one. El Pais, commented on the lopsidedness of it all, “The most complete ridicule.”

It didn’t seem too long ago that Spain, the Iberian Peninsula nation, despite a long history of producing some of the biggest and best known clubs in the entire world in Real Madrid and Barcelona with some of her native sons – Alfredo Di Stefano, Emilio ButragueƱo, and Raul Gonzalez to name a few -- becoming synonymous with the sport, wilting on the grandest stages of them all.

There was one early moment of glory before this current Golden Generation of players brought their country to heights hitherto unscaled. In 1964, La Roja, copped European gold when it defeated the Soviet Union, 2-1, at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid.

That Spanish team’s one star was Luis Suarez, not to be confused with Uruguay’s current whirling dervish of a forward.

Mandeep Sanghera, writing for BBC Sport, quoted former Marca sportswriter Juan Castro as saying, “If you look at that win, the Spanish public doesn’t consider it as important as it was. It is not in the hearts of the public. That is probably because, although we remember Luis Suarez, it was a team of no superstars.”

That considering the team was composed mainly of players from Real Madrid and Barcelona. The backdrop of that era wasn’t only the Cold War period but an ongoing shooting war between Greece and Albania, both who had begged off from the tournament.

Politics wasn’t the only problem of neighboring countries. On the homefront, General Franco, the ruler of Spain at that time, forbade the national team from playing in the Soviet Union. Yet when La Roja booked a quarterfinal tickets to the Soviets, Franco eventually relented. Spain crushed the Russians for a second time in the tournament and brought home its first major football trophy.

It wasn’t until 44 years later that Spain would taste and finally be recognized for its greatness.

In Euro 2008, Spain began to put it all together. In their eighth participation in the biennial tournament, they snuck on opponents as the 12th seed.

In the group stages, they destroyed a familiar foe in Russia, 4-1. They closed out the group play with identical 2-1 wins over Sweden and Greece.

Advancing to the knockout rounds, they defeated Italy, 4-2, on penalties. In the semis, they repeated their dominance over Russia, 3-0. In the finals, they slipped past a young but no less talented German team, 1-0.

It was an incredible finish for Spain as it took down higher seeded such as Sweden, Greece (although it was a pale comparison of its 2004 champion self), as well as perennial title contenders Italy and Germany. Spain was finally atop the football world.

In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, La Furia Roja flexed its newfound confidence and fully unleashed tiki taka on the world. They were imperious and Euro 2012 was theirs as well. They were serenaded for their free flowing game. Tiki taka had supplanted total football (even if it was its offspring due to its Dutch masters at La Masia where the style was perfected).

When Spain finally ascended to the top of the football world it was swift and a came as a delightful surprise. No longer the eternal bridesmaid La Roja flexed its muscles and remained dominant for six long years.

That is why when La Furia Roja was dispatched in embarrassing fashion and after only two matches played in Brazil, it was a shocking surprise. They didn’t even put up a fight. Unless you consider that last half of football against Chile a fight.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque who has presided on the last two Spanish triumphs cautioned against hasty judgments or recriminations. In pleading words he underscored that that there will be a time for this.

It is ironic that the country and the team that gave football two of its best innovations since the Dutch unleashed “total football” in the 1970s – the 4-2-3-1 formation and tiki taka went to the land where the beautiful game is played only to be deconstructed.

When La Furia Roja takes to the pitch at the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba at noon of the 23rd of June (June 24 in Manila) to play Australia, both teams’ swan song for this World Cup, watch them. Whether in mournful sympathy or to see which side will notch their first win or even a draw in what has been a horrifying campaign for both.

This might be the last you’ll see of this team that showed the world how the game should be played.

The King is dead. Long live the King.


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