The Best Way to Lose

The Best Way to Lose

With two losses in a row, defending champion Spain is out of the World Cup. Its opponents Chile and the Netherlands were no tomato cans, but the Spanish team didn’t have its usual spice. When it won the World Cup in 2010, it brought together a nation with deep political fault lines. This time, politics may have caused its demise.

It’s often said that the best club teams in the world could easily beat most of the best national teams. Professional clubs have the luxury of choosing players from around the world, and the wealthiest ones can afford the best of the best. But there are a few national teams that turn this dynamic on its head, and Spain is one of them.

Spain is home to Real Madrid and Barcelona, two of the most successful soccer clubs in the world. This year, they battled with upstart Atlético de Madrid for the Spanish league title, ultimately losing out to the smaller team. But in the prestigious Champions League, Real Madrid beat its local rival, which had booted Barcelona in the quarterfinals.

Atlético and Real Madrid both contributed players to the national team for this World Cup, but Barcelona had by far the biggest contingent. Seven of its players — Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fàbregas, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, and Pedro Rodríguez — were in the squad, plus former stars David Villa and Pepe Reina. Longtime coach Vicente del Bosque could almost have formed an entire team composed solely of Barcelona players, a group that knew the same system and which had, in different combinations, taken the field together many times in the past. And it wasn’t just any system; Barcelona was the leading exponent of Spain’s "tiki-taka" style of possession-driven soccer.

For the first match against the Netherlands, del Bosque opted for five players from Barcelona. When Spain won the European championship in 2012, the same five players — Jordi Alba had just signed with the Catalans — were joined in the starting lineup by Cesc Fàbregas. The rest were from Real Madrid (Xabi Alonso, Álvaro Arbeloa, Iker Casillas, and Sergio Ramos) and Manchester City (David Silva). All but Arbeloa made the starting lineup against the Netherlands, too. The only additions were César Azpilicueta of Chelsea and Diego Costa of Atlético, who was soon to join him in London.

The Dutch were rampant, and the 5-1 defeat was a disaster for Spain. Faced with a must-win game against Chile, del Bosque must have known in his heart that nine Barcelona-trained players and two more talented Spaniards could beat most teams from around the globe. Casillas was weak against the Dutch, and Reina, coming off a great year for Napoli, was the only healthy goalkeeper left. Costa was toothless as the main striker despite his outstanding year for Atlético, but Fàbregas and Rodríguez had performed scoring miracles as well.

But del Bosque kept chopping and changing. He dropped Piqué and Hernández, the orchestrator of Spain’s three major tournament wins. In their places, in came Rodríguez and Javi Martínez of Bayern Munich. Putting aside the question of who would replace Hernández in the role of midfield general, why didn’t del Bosque go for Barcelona-plus-two?

As a former Real Madrid player and coach, del Bosque might have found the idea of picking such a team especially odious. But another hint may lie in the reaction back home after the team’s World Cup win in 2010.

Real Madrid and Barcelona, which between them had contributed 10 of the 11 players who started the final, represented very different communities in Spain. Real Madrid had been the team of royalists and Francisco Franco before it morphed into Spain’s equivalent of the New York Yankees. Barcelona had practically been a surrogate army for restive Catalonia — a show of strength and independence against the rest of Spain. But in 2010, the two clubs’ players came together to claim soccer’s biggest prize. Moreover, the players were drawn from all over Spain; Alonso was born in the Basque country, Villa in Asturias, Rodríguez in the Canary Islands, and Ramos in Andalusia. For one day, as they celebrated the unprecedented victory, Spaniards across the country all felt truly Spanish.

Playing an almost all-Barcelona side against Chile might well have had the opposite effect. Win or lose, there would have been taunting across regional borders, and the old Madrid-Barcelona rivalry would have raised one of its uglier heads. Perhaps del Bosque saw this, and decided to give Spain a gift that would ultimately mean more than yet another title: unity, win or lose.