“It’s not as if we have been knocked out,” Andrés Iniesta said, but it was exactly as if they had been knocked out.
Defeated for the first time at a European Championship in 12 years and one day, it was as if Spain watched the title they came to defend slip through their fingers bit by bit, somehow not fully aware of what was happening until it had happened. Nikola Kalinic’s flick, Sergio Ramos’s saved penalty, Ivan Perisic’s finish, and it had gone.
At the end of Spain’s 2-1 defeat against Croatia in Bordeaux, the players departed heads down, defeated. Vicente del Bosque was asked how the dressing room was. “Silent,” he said. “It hurts to lose this. We had it in our hands.”
“It” was more than just the game. The coach had warned against euphoria, insisting: “Football punishes those who are not humble.” Spain had been the tournament’s outstanding performers so far and it was impossible not to look at the path laid out before them and think that this was a team that could hardly fail to reach the semi-finals or beyond. The euphoria was natural enough; now, suddenly, it had vanished. When Perisic scored, the confidence was gone. So much so that it was as if any chance had gone, too.
Two passes, 80 yards and everything changed; everything seemed different. The entire tournament does. Victories against the Czech Republic and Turkey felt hollow now, the apparent certainties had gone. They were replaced by doubts: David de Gea, finally made the country’s No1 but hugely disappointing here, was one. Fitness was another. “Tiredness is no excuse,” Ramos said, but it may be part of the explanation. No players have played as much football this season as Spain’s; no players have played as much at this tournament, either.
That Spain had made no changes at all, fielding the same team for a third successive game, was logical enough. It seemed to express the seriousness with which a coach, who was aware of how its outcome would affect the draw, was taking the game; no concessions made. Yet that seriousness was not always replicated on the pitch, where Spain were beaten by a Croatia team that made five changes and was without Luka Modric. “Croatia B”, one columnist pointedly called them.
It is not just that stronger teams await Spain, it is that the very strongest do. Instead of a third-placed team, followed by Switzerland or Poland and then a semi-final which, however the combinations work out, they would be overwhelming favourites to win, Spain now face Italy. And that’s just the start. There is the prospect, perhaps even the probability, of a run that reads: Italy, Germany, France. As one newspaper put it, they had “crossed to the dark side”. Del Bosque admitted: “It’s not the path we wanted.”
And, when all else was stripped away, that was the point. “We’re still in the competition,” Del Bosque added.
Nolito went down the same route. “We haven’t been knocked out,” he insisted, even though no one said they had been. It was a message Spain’s players kept repeating as they departed the Stade de Bordeaux, as if they sought to convince themselves. And somehow it didn’t convince. Spain went through to the next phase, yet the sensation was that this is over now.
No one could get Italy out of their minds – Italy were not pleased about it either, incidentally – and, even if they could, Germany and France took their place. “In theory that half of the draw has the stronger teams,” Iniesta admitted. In theory.
A glance at Croatia’s fixtures was cruel: “let’s see what you could have won”. And it had finally escaped their grasp in the 87th minute, after an earlier penalty miss from Ramos. Del Bosque called it the kind of slip that Spain “should not allow” with the result in their favour. He also said penalties are a question of confidence and that the manager should not interfere. Perhaps he should: Ramos’s poor spot-kick means Spain have missed 43% of their penalties under him; there have been nine different takers, six of whom have missed.
Here, Cesc Fàbregas was in line, Iniesta too, but Ramos said he was confident, and took it. Over on the touchline, his Real Madrid team-mate Modric alerted his countrymen of Ramos’s likely intentions. Long after the game ended, the pair stood in the doorway of the dressing room chatting as players departed. Croatia’s squad will now believe that they have a unique opportunity in France; Spain’s players came past defeated.
The good news is that instead of playing in Lens on Saturday they now move to Paris on Monday, two more days to prepare and forget this, to clear their minds. Or maybe to chew it over, for it to eat away at them.
On Wednesday, the doors to their Ile de Ré training camp were closed for the first time. “We need to recover mentally and physically, lift ourselves up,” Del Bosque had said. This was not the usual discourse of a team that had made it through to the next round with a game to spare.
“The dressing room is gutted, very down after the defeat,” Nolito said and there was something telling in the way he framed things. “Now we have a potentially more difficult game on Monday but we are still Spain and we have to remember that,” he added. “It was a strange game. At the end you can’t help thinking that the draw is enough; then they get the second goal and it leaves you devastated. But we have to go on. We have no choice.”
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