“La Croatie Enfume L’Espagne [Croatia fools Spain],” wrote respected French sports daily L’Équipe after La Roja’s surprising and calamitous collapse against Croatia, with Ivan Perisic scoring the winner in “Payet Time” – the knack teams at Euro 2016 have developed for scoring from the 87th minute onwards. The goal condemned Spain to a daunting round of sixteen encounter with a cunning Italy.
For much of the 90 minutes, Spain had bossed the game, weaving and knitting patterns on the midfield, on the cusp of another deserved victory, but at the same time, perilously close into transforming its much famed “Tiki-Taka’ game into a lateral stasis. Indeed, often Spain sought width in the midfield, not precise penetration in the final third – how different a performance from their demonstration against Turkey, arguably weaker opposition, but, then again, Croatia was decimated in the absence of the injured Luca Modric.
Andrés Iniesta enchanted against the Turks. He played a game of refined chess, the brain behind Spanish attacks, but always with a hint of the unexpected. After Spain’s comfortable 3-0 win, he walked into Stade de Nice’s press conference room, elected man of the match by a UEFA committee. Timidly, he sat down in his blue Spain T-shirt. For all, he could have been one of the many volunteers, helping out with the organization of Euro 2016.
The questions from the floor were straightforward: Had Spain improved after its opening game against the Czech Republic? Did Spain and Iniesta need to take their responsibility by winning the tournament after a disappointing 2014 World Cup?
The FC Barcelona captain replied coolly. “As the tournament goes on, we must keep improving,” said Iniesta. “Today I’d give both our players and fans [a mark] of 10/10.” Typically, Iniesta praised his teammates, but not himself. Yet his majestic performance against Turkey had been at the heart of Spain’s grand return to soccer of an otherworldly level, highlighted by a perfect understanding and a joie de vivre in its game.
The Spanish demonstration reached a climax with its third goal, almost a eulogy of its own game. All of the Spanish outfield players were involved in the build-up, with the exception of Gerard Pique. Iniesta also set up Alvaro Morata to tap in his second goal of the game as he ensured a comfortable 3-0 win. The diminutive Spaniard had a largesse to his game, probing and poking the Turks, almost teasing them, in a subtle and benign manner. He took charge of the game, providing his team with vertigo and a much-needed directness, to which Spain novices Nolito and Morata responded well.
Against the Czech Republic, Iniesta had failed to attain the same beguiling level, but still he excelled. The central Europeans conformed to a siege mentality, erecting a solid vestige around the box. Yet, it didn’t perturb Iniesta. He floated and fleeted.
On the left side of a midfield three, he stuck to operating in his zone and venturing into the Czech half, from where he funneled the Spanish attack. He danced through the Czech lines. Iniesta touched the ball 107 times and passed 93 times with a completion rate of 91 percent. That rate remained as high as 85 percent in the final third. In the 87th minute, he dealt the opposition a sucker punch. The Czechs erred in clearing a corner and Iniesta, left completely unmarked by Pavel Kaderablek, applied the punishment in delivering a sumptuous cross for Pique to score the winner.
At 32, Iniesta remains “world heritage,” as FC Barcelona coach Luis Enrique once proclaimed after another super performance from his player. Iniesta hypnotizes both opponents and fans. He is unassuming, but glides sharply across the field to dissect and demolish opponents with defense-splitting passes, the product of his cerebral vision, split-second decision-making, and perfection in execution.
Spain’s renewed purpose elicited the second question from the press floor, because at the last World Cup, in Brazil, the Spanish armada disappointed, crumbling in a cataclysmic 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Netherlands. For Spain, a four year cycle – the most successful of its history with a double European and world title – had come to an end. The Spanish had become old and gave in to a simmering form of complacency.
In Salvador, the Dutch didn’t sit back and flocked forward, a risky, but successful, strategy as the midfield trio over Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Xavi were outplayed. After the World Cup, the latter two retired.
Today, Spain’s equilibrium and thrust depends on Iniesta. The FC Barcelona captain gives his team a technical identity, and more, because, for too long, coach Vicente Del Bosque has faced the accusation of not forging a new identity in the post-Luis Aragones era. Is the current Spain outfit is truly a brainchild of Del Bosque or rather a meek follow-up and imitation of Aragones’ all-conquering 2008-2012 team? Spain is in flux, but if their game clicks, they may be unstoppable.
Therein, Ineista plays a key role, but Croatia ruthlessly exposed the false sense of Spanish supremacy. Even without Modric, the Croatians were a constant menace on the counter, and with success in the waning moments of the game. Iniesta, for his part, didn’t pull any strings. L’Equipe, correctly, gave him a 4/10, a rating based on assessments by multiple journalists. The Spaniard had little influence and failed to distribute the ball. As a result, Spain’s route in the tournament has been complicated. The match against Italy will be a measure of Spain’s progress and how far into the tournament Iniesta can lead his team.