Why it is becoming a recurring theme at the World Cups that the defending champions make a first round exit? It is the third time now in the last four editions that the defending champions have exited from the group stages, and rather meekly too. Is it just coincidence or is there something more to this succession of failure? Could it be that the champions become too predictable in the way that they operate? Could it be that they become too complacent to ring in the changes that may seem necessary from outside? Or is it a combination of both of these factors?
Let's go back four years to South Africa where Italy were defending the title they had won under Marcello Lippi in 2006. Lippi, having enjoyed a two-year sabbatical, went to South Africa with an Italy squad that retained nine of the players who had lifted the trophy four years earlier. Not only were those nine players older by four years, most of them were well past their prime. Poor Lippi, who had tinkered with his personnel and formation with great success from game to game and within games in 2006, left himself with few options four years later and paid the ultimate price. Italy made a meek exit, with only two points, from a group which included lightweights like Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.
On Wednesday, Spain followed suit in becoming the latest in the defending champions casualty list, having lost both of their first two group stage matches and conceding seven goals against one. It has not been a meek exit for the Spaniards; it has rather been a humiliating one. Like Lippi, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque was too reluctant to see what was written on the wall. But unlike Lippi, Del Bosque was not even willing to concede his mistakes.
This Spanish side, despite being the predominant force in world football over the last six years, had developed very distinctive chinks in its armour. No chink was more distinctly visible than that in Iker Casillas. Once the world's best goalkeeper, Casillas made two dreadful mistakes in the first match, yet was chosen ahead of Pepe Reina and David de Gea for the second match against Chile. The result was disastrous as Real Madrid's second-choice keeper gifted a second goal to the Chileans by parrying a rather straightforward free kick back to the danger zone when he only needed to punch it out wide to clear the danger.
Up front, Diego Costa was used as the lone centre-forward at the expense of other strikers including David Villa, the proven goalscorer for Spain in international matches. The Atletico Madrid marksman, who flourishes in a team which is the absolute antithesis of Barcelona, looked like a fish out of water in a Spain side which is modeled solely, and unvaryingly, after the Barcelona model. The result was disaster yet again.
Having gone down 2-0, Del Bosque made three changes, but all of those changes were like-for-like, probably because he was simply unwilling to test any formation other than the one which yielded so much success. The result was an obvious one.
But these issues over the choices of personnel and formation had its root in a bigger malaise -- the failure to set the transition in process, failure to give youngsters like Isco, Alvaro Morata, Thiago Alcantara and Daniel Carvajal enough opportunities in the lead-up to the World Cup to consider them for the big stage.
Does Spain's elimination spell the death for tiki taka, as many people are calling it? Let's not get too ahead of ourselves, let's not brush aside a system which has given us so many memorable moments over the best part of the last decade. Great ideas in football have a way of reinventing and redefining themselves. Even if Spain comes out of its obsession for possession-based passing football, let's hope they employ it in some form or another.