With 1-0 victory over Portugal, Spain again looks like its old self
Spain fans entered the match worrying that their team was somehow off its game
Concerns deepened when Spain dominated Portugal early but still failed to score
But once Spain scored on David Villa's goal, the team regained its confidence
Spain had just defeated Portugal 1-0 and Vicente del Bosque was standing at the side of the pitch, a microphone under his moustache, when the camera panned back. There, over his shoulder in the stands at the Green Point Stadium was a banner. On it was the slogan: "¿¡Luis, por qué no te callas?!" Luis, why don't you just shut up?!
Fat chance. There was no way Luis Aragonés was going to shut up. After all, he was being paid for commentating on Spain for the TV channel Al Jazeera; for the duration of the World Cup talking is his job. Besides, he seemed to quite enjoy putting the boot into del Bosque, the man he reckoned had jumped into his job with indecent haste. Still, at least this time the former Spain coach would surely have something positive to say.
Spanish fans had grown annoyed with Aragonés' attacks on the man who followed him into the Spain job. When he said that Spain's opening match defeat had been "coming for some time," most considered his jibes bitter and opportunistic. Famously bad-tempered, he was still furious at his departure from the national team and sour at the way the RFEF handled the appointment of del Bosque, his successor.
And yet while they rallied around the current coach, while they appealed for unity and sniped at the snipers, bit-by-bit some Spanish fans and media commentators were struck by a worrying thought: what if the former coach was right? This had not been the best of World Cups so far. They had been beaten and even when they won they didn't win the right way. Their precise, short-passing style has been described as tiki-taka, roughly "touch-touch" but some suggested it had deserted them. There was tiki but no taka.
Tuesday night, at last, it did. Certainly by the end, it did. Before the match Aragonés said that he didn't have much confidence in Spain. By the end of it, everyone else did. Before the game, he said Portugal might win "quite easily." By the end of it, Spain had. By the end of it, everyone was delighted. An occasionally nervy, heavy-legged first half -- the opening 10-minute burst apart -- gave way to an impressive second.
At half time, Spain had dominated possession but not found a way through against a side that had kept 20 clean sheets in their last 25 games. David Villa had drawn the best save but the chances had not been clear cut. Fernando Torres still looked some way off the pace, his touch deserting him. Worse, at the other end, Iker Casillas had twice fumbled what looked like routine catches. He redeemed himself by being very alert, quickly off his line to break down a swift Portuguese attack -- but that only served to increase the feeling of vulnerability.
Some could not help being reminded of the opening match against Switzerland, when a sucker punch, a goal that looked like a slapstick comedy routine, had condemned Spain to only its second defeat in 50 games. Everyone was looking at the possible changes, demanding them. Some wanted an extra midfielder to give them fluidity -- Cesc Fàbregas or David Silva. Some wanted a winger -- Jesús Navas or Juan Manuel Mata. Most wanted one less defensive midfielder, to jettison Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso in favor of a creative force. And many wanted Torres off.
Few wanted Torres off for Fernando Llorente. It was a change that implied no change in terms of formation and approach; another physical center forward to occupy the defenders. More of the same. But that was the change Vicente del Bosque went for. Patience, he had decided, was a virtue. Others may have doubted Spain but afterwards del Bosque, his voice hoarse said: "On the inside, we think we have been playing well. We weren't worried." There was no need to panic. He has insisted over and over that, despite arguments to the contrary, there has been no diluting la selección's style, even if there have been variations added. He has not committed treason against it.
Soon patience -- and the introduction of Llorente, who was excellent -- had its reward in the form of the kind of goal that many Spanish commentators like to think is the typical Spanish goal. There was plenty of tiki and this time there was plenty of taka too, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta cleverly combining in the tightest of spaces to release Villa for his fourth of the tournament -- taking him level at the top of the charts. Top scorer at Euro2008, he is on course to be top scorer at South Africa 2010.
The moment the ball went in, the game was over. The moment the ball went in Spain became Spain. But Spain had been given the chance to become Spain by being Spain in the first place. If you see what I mean ... Portugal had to react but it couldn't. Not because the Portuguese are a bad side -- although they are not especially good and they're certainly not a team built to carry the game to the opposition; their tactics consist of waiting for the counterattack -- but because once the Spanish are in front they are an exceptional one.
There have been many myths built around tika-taka. Such as the insistence that at Euro2008, Spain relied solely on neat passing and short balls, never going direct and never opting for pace or power -- resources that are often treated as if they are somehow morally inferior. Another is that tiki-taka is a route to goal, a purely offensive tactic. In fact, it is a defensive one too. Spain defends with the ball; few teams, perhaps none, can kill a game better. On Tuesday, Portugal could not even begin to find a way back into the game. Why? Because it just could not get near the ball to attack Spain.
Eased of the burden of having to score, Spain settled into a mesmerizing rhythm. The final 20 minutes were frustrating for the Portuguese; they were gripped by impotence. "Spain move the ball well, they keep possession and they scored the goal," said the Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz, with a resignation that suggested that he knew that victory had become impossible the moment Villa found the net.
Spain played a proper team, theoretically one of the tournament's strongest, and while a first goal for Portugal would certainly have changed things, it was a convincing win. In the end the Spanish boasted over 60 percent of the possession and had 10 shots on target to Portugal's three. The confidence, dented in the first three games, flooded back. Vicente was vindicated; the players, too.
When the final whistle went, the commentator shouted out: "We have seen the best of Spain, the Spain of the European Championships. We could not be happier." Down on the touchline, his pitch side reporter was talking to del Bosque, who dared to admit that his team was hopeful of "making history." Meanwhile, over on the other channel, Luis Aragonés said: "After half time Spain had possession and confidence. Quite honestly, they surprised me." But this time no one was listening.