he 2010 World Cup is over and a new name is on the trophy for the first time in twelve years. Spain was the first team to win the cup having lost their opening match, but the loss to the plucky Swiss will be remembered as a blemish in an otherwise outstanding tournament for the Spanish. How did Spain, until twenty-five years ago a relative backwater of international football, rise to dominate the beautiful game? What loosed La Furia Roja?
Spain came away victors, scoring eight goals, conceding two, and maintaining an average of 58% possession in their seven matches of the tournament. They were not prolific in front of goal, but did hold the best defensive record of all the semi-finalists. Four matches closed out with 1-0 scorelines paved the road to the final against the Netherlands, a record which in retrospect, clearly portended well for the final. The Spanish played the game on their terms and a frustrated Dutch side eventually capitulated to an Andres Iniesta strike late in extra time.
Spain’s tournament was characterized by a stifling ability to keep the ball and patiently crafting chances from their opponent’s mistakes. But ‘the power of possession’ is a generic, unsatisfying explanation of the tournament’s outcome. Everyone can tell you that the magician has not actually sawed a woman in half, but the real magic is in knowing how he has actually performed the trick. Plenty of teams claim to play possession ball, but few will ever implement the system as effectively as La Roja did this World Cup. The question of strategic choice, manifested in football through the various styles of possession, pace and power, counterattack, is not the answer we are looking for here. Systems enjoy dominance for a time until other systems adapt and overtake them. The debate over which playing style is best has no end, there is no absolute truth to be found, only a cycle of ideas adapting and challenging each other. The magic of how Spain won the World Cup is not in any ultimate strategy, it is the composition of the team itself.
Obsessive possession requires immense skill to achieve and unfailing concentration and discipline to maintain. Vincente Del Bosque was able to find twenty-three players capable of doing so, the Spanish team has remarkably similar skill sets and performance levels. This is out of necessity since a rigid system demands equally rigid player choice in order to feed it. If the play style does not adapt to the strengths of the team, then the players need to be homogenous in skill to avoid upsetting the system (the story of how Barcelona is able to populate the national bench with such consistently high-quality players is too long to tell here). Once Spain hit their stride that is exactly what we saw, control of the game and a like-for-like substitution strategy to maintain the system.
The proficiency of Del Bosque’s side is due less to prescient management or some secret training technique than something far more boring: time. Sheer volume of practice time working on positioning, passing rhythms, movement patterns et al. is the only way that such a feat can be achieved. That practice time is available only to Spain because ten of the starting eleven are found at just two clubs. Barcelona players alone number seven, meaning that more than half of the national team plays together on a day to day basis and has done so for years. Compare this to an England side where you would be hard pressed to find more than three players together on club level and given a few weeks of training time together. Which side is more likely to have learned instinctual patterns of play? The answer is obvious. With an entire generation of outstanding talent constantly interacting and learning from each other Spain has the most fertile footballing network in the world and the results show.
All this does not mean that talent has no affect on outcomes or that victory is inevitable. Cohesion without skill is as attractive as a speedbump, but as France and Italy have aptly demonstrated this year, talent without unity and organization is an uglier, more wasteful spectacle. Spain’s victory is a product of a modern footballing system which has institutionalized the creation of football talent, encouraged network effects by keeping that talent together, and combined it with strategic discipline. My own national team will forgive me if I say that Spanish players look to dominate international football for the next generation. But who knows where the golden generation after that will be, after all time is the greatest equalizer in history.