Spain’s shocking early elimination is perhaps one of the greatest upsets in recent memory, despite the fact that the circumstances surrounding it are not unprecedented. The Spanish squad does follow in the footsteps of the 2002 French and 2010 Italian teams that were eliminated in the group round as defending World Cup champs. Yet neither of the aforementioned teams had a roster so chock full of returning super stars with what many perceived to still be the most purely talented roster in the tournament.
The 2010 Spanish team - comprised of many of the same players that took the field today - was a menacing squad of superb passers, quick and decisive strikers and the most multidimensional line of defenders in the world. Their style of play - referred to as “tiki-taka” - was one that was distinctly hard to defend on the international level as it allowed even defensive midfielders and fullbacks to make strategic offensive plays.
Most importantly, they were fighters who battled for the title against the Netherlands in a final that was scoreless until the 116th minute. That’s when Andres Iniesta staked his claim as the world’s best midfielder by scoring the winning goal.
After opening their 2014 World Cup run with a rematch of sorts against the Netherlands that ended in a devastating 4-1 defeat, Spain needed a win against the Chileans in order to keep their Cup hopes alive. Yet they played with very little coordination or inspiration; looking defeated before Chile had even scored their first goal in the first half.
It became apparent that Spain was the underdog in the match after Diego Vargas put the first goal in the back of an open net after a miscue by Spanish keeper Iker Casillas. Casillas’ path to the starting position in net for Spain has been one marked by controversy after he spent his most recent club season playing as the backup for his longtime team, Real Madrid.
Despite his demotion there were still plenty of fans and analysts who believed Casillas to be one of the better goaltenders in the world. Yet his largely decreased exposure to elite competition in La Liga and Champions League play manifested itself in such diminished effectiveness in this tournament that he looked like merely a shell of himself; giving up his second goal after inexplicably slapping an Alexis Sanchez free kick back into play and watching the ensuing rebound shot sail by him.
Of course Spain’s complete meltdown was about far more than just goal tending. Iniesta was nearly a non-factor in both games, which freed up his opponents to defend the rest of their midfield and defense more liberally. In what was a true domino effect, Spain’s once formidable defense led by Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Ramos looked comically outmatched.
Pique and fellow veteran Xavi, both of whom were on the championship teams that won the 2008 UEFA Euros, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 UEFA Euros, played so poorly against the Netherlands that they were left off of the starting roster against Chile.
Chile and the Netherlands are now officially the two teams advancing to the knockout round from Group B, and will play each other on June 23rd at 3pm ET in their final game of group play.