Two games, two defeats, no goals, eliminated. That was the sum total of Spanish football team’s contribution to the Olympic Games.
A competition that started as the chance to secure their second major competition of the summer (third if you include the U-19s retaining their European title) ended in just four days.
“This team would have grown and been a medallist,” claimed Coach Luis Milla afterwards. Ill-advised words so quickly after defeat and certainly ones not echoed by the Spanish media.
‘An Olympic disaster’, said Marca after Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Honduras. ‘We expected a lot more from this generation’, ran the broadly similar sentiments in AS. However, despite the initial disappointment, some of the reaction has bordered on hysteria rather than critical analysis.
Instantly Twitter feeds filled with Spanish fans ‘worrying’ for the future. Where is the next Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique or Sergio Ramos? Do these players have the right mentality? With numerous players having surrounded and even nudged match officials when a late penalty on Rodrgio wasn’t called against Honduras, is this a group of players without the required discipline either?
The last complaint is a legitimate one. In the final quarter Spain only penalised themselves by playing into Honduras’ game-plan and giving away a slew of free-kicks that allowed the Central Americans to wind the clock down.
But that was just a reaction of young players not used to losing. Doubting this generation is so bizarre simply because they have already proved they are winners. Juan Mata and Javi Martinez have World Cup and European Championship medals, Jordi Alba also has the latter and the Olympic squad was almost entirely the same as the one that won the European U-21 Championship last summer.
If anything, Spain’s domination has spoiled these players at a young age and losing should do their future development a power of good. As Iker Muniain, one of those quickest to lose his cool in Newcastle on Sunday evening, said: “These things happen in football. The only thing this will do is make me stronger. I love this sport and it is a continuing challenge.”
And that is the point. Spain’s relentless success has allowed us to forget that these things do happen. In tournament football the smallest details make a huge difference. In recent years the Spanish national team have gotten the breaks. Beating Italy on penalties in 2008, Arjen Robben failing to beat Iker Casillas when one-on-one in the World Cup final and Carles Puyol not seeing red for a tug on Robben’s shirt as he broke clear with a similar chance moments later. Even in Poland and Ukraine last month there was good fortune, in the semi-final shootout against Portugal Bruno Alves hit the underside of the bar, the ball came out. Cesc Fabregas the inside of the post, the ball went in.
Spain were careless at the Olympics, the defending for both goals they conceded slack. But they also were slightly unfortunate to have Inigo Martinez sent-off after 40 minutes against Japan, could have had two penalties against Honduras and even when they hit the woodwork the ball wouldn’t fall in.
They were also without a key man in Thiago Alcantara. The man being groomed to take over from Xavi was his Barcelona teammate’s equivalent in the side that won the U-21 title in Denmark last year, dictating the play, creating space for the likes of Mata, Adrian and Muniain to play and even scoring wonder goals like his one in the final against Switzerland.
To play in the Olympics, said a host of Spanish players last week, is a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. It may just be that it is the experience of losing for once that makes them even better come 2014, 2016, 2018 and beyond.