On a freezing Parisian night this March, Spain popped over for a friendly and tore France apart. Without particularly trying, they won 2-0. Most of the time they passed the ball around as if playing piggy-in-the-middle with the Frenchmen.
France’s striker Nicolas Anelka said afterwards that it had looked like a first-division club playing a fourth-division one, but in truth it was worse than that.
When Spain meet Switzerland in Durban on Wednesday, the best team in the world face the most boring team. Rightly, Spain are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the trophy. Nonetheless they will probably fail, because in World Cups the best team usually does.
Spain’s first problem is that everyone knows exactly how they play. They methodically weave their way down the pitch with short passes, and score. They are so confident in their style that they shun the orthodoxy of modern football, which says that the best way to score is on a fast break.
When Spain win possession, they seldom bother breaking. They just methodically weave.
The problem they posed was always clear, yet for years nobody could solve it. Since 2000 Spain have won more than 70 per cent of their matches, better than even Brazil have ever managed in a decade. Statistically they are the best team in history.
Inevitably it was José Mourinho, the coach who likes to say that he throws sugar in the other team’s fuel tank, who seems to have cracked Spain’s code. This spring his Inter Milan twice played Barcelona, a team including about half the Spanish national team. Mourinho, in his own jargon, “parked the bus” in Barcelona’s stadium: virtually his entire team lined up in moving rows at the edge of their own penalty area.
Barca were allowed to do what they liked until they reached Inter’s wall, whereupon they were crowded out.
And Mourinho had a second innovation. He had seen that Xavi – the hub for Barca as he is for Spain – is a weakness as well as a strength.
One reason Xavi’s team-mates can always get the ball to him is that he doesn’t always have to defend. That’s a rare privilege for a midfielder in modern football. Inter duly ran counter-attacks through the space that Xavi left them, and slayed Barcelona. Every team in Spain’s group will have performed an exegesis of those two games.
However, Spain’s biggest problem is the World Cup’s format. Pre-tournament, pundits tend to presume that the best team will win. France and Argentina, for instance, have been written off on the grounds that they aren’t the best team. Yet the pundits are confusing World Cups with leagues. In a league the best team does win, because a league lasts nine months. Over such a long period, random factors like one referee’s error or a ball on the post are rarely decisive. In a league, quality tells.
In contrast, a World Cup is decided in four games. Almost every big team will reach the second round. After that, whoever wins four times is the champion.
Most of the knockout games will be decided by one goal or penalties. A referee’s error or a random element, a ball hitting the post rather than the back of the net, therefore can – and often does – decide the World Cup.
Luck of the draw matters too: if either Spain or Brazil somehow fail to win their group, they could meet in the second round – thereby opening the way to a second-rank side such as France or Argentina.
If this tournament were simply about deciding who is the best side, the Spaniards could swing round Fifa’s offices and pick up the trophy now. Instead, to use an analogy chosen entirely at random, Spain will probably default.