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FIFA World Cup 2018: With Andres Iniesta, an era passes for Spain

Spain’s Andres Iniesta, who won 133 caps in an international career spanning 12 years, retired from international football on Sunday following his side’s FIFA World Cup elimination at the hands of Russia.

football Updated: Jul 02, 2018 17:45 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Moscow
FIFA World Cup 2018,Andres Iniesta,Spain vs Russia
Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta called time on his remarkable international career after his team’s surprise FIFA World Cup exit at the hands of hosts Russia on Sunday.(AFP)

With Andres Iniesta, who retired from Spain duty on Sunday, a generation and a way of playing football may have, well, passed.

For years, Spain prided themselves on their possession-based football. At the heart of the idea were Barcelona mates Iniesta and Xavi, torch-bearers of tiki-taka, a term that became part of football’s lexicon. Spain ruled football from 2008 to 2012 winning a World Cup on either side of two European championships.

Since then, La Roja have failed to make the quarter-finals of the three major tournaments they have played in. After Chile’s furious pace and their relentless pressing had Spain reeling, Xavi moved on in 2014. Like Iniesta against Russia on Sunday, the pass master had started on the bench at Rio’s Maracana.

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Unlike against Chile, Spain had the lion’s share of the ball here. They completed 1031 passes which was two more than what Russia had made in four games. And yet they are going home with the gnawing feeling that relentless passing is a concept of limited effectiveness against teams that can organise their defence and sit deep.

Spain had 24 shots, nine on target, and yet Igor Akinfeev only had to make two saves of significance – one from Diego Costa in the first half and another from Iniesta in the second.

Perhaps Iniesta’s introduction in the second half showed how Spain’s way of playing and that of their great conductor were on the wane.

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Iniesta, the hero of the 2010 World Cup final, replaced David Silva. And though he isn’t the player he was eight years ago, Iniesta did introduce a sense of urgency. Yet Russia held out in relative comfort.

The performance was in contrast to the Spanish sides of 2008-2012. With Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Javi Martinez, among others, in midfield Spain dominated and delivered through tiki-taka.

But when Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan famously defeated Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final, it was evident that there were ways around tiki-taka.

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Guardiola subsequently adapted, at Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City. His City side got an injection of pace and is powerful on the flanks along with its ability to control the ball. In short, it is vastly different from the great Barcelona teams Guardiola developed.

Spain, however, didn’t evolve at the same pace. As their last three tournaments have shown, teams are more comfortable playing against Spain than they were a decade back.

Like Germany, Spain too relied on the old guard. Apart from the retiring duo of Iniesta and Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Silva and Busquets have been part of the core in recent years.

However, Thiago wasn’t called upon and neither was Saul Niguez who has been ever-present in Atletico Madrid’s midfield for the past four seasons. Saul managed just one start in Spain’s qualifying campaign.

During that successful campaign, four of the five players who got more than seven starts had been part of the 2010 World Cup. The fifth was goalkeeper David de Gea.

Julen Lopetegui and Hierro kept the faith in the traditional system and an ageing set of players. But the former lost his job and on Sunday, Hierro the chance to regain what Spain had tamely surrendered four years back.

First Published: Jul 02, 2018 17:42 IST