As the picture of World Cup 2018 qualification clarified last week, FIFA has confirmed the seven highest-ranked qualifiers will join hosts Russia as top-seeded teams in the upcoming group draw. The hot news is that Spain will not be amongst them.
The governing body uses its October FIFA World Rankings to sort all four seeding pots. And this is despite despite the fact that nine places in the 32-team World Cup line-up are still to be decided in November. It has be considered to be a fairly arbitrary solution and there is no doubt that it could have grave implications for Spain who will not have their customary place amidst the eight top seeds to rely on.
As hosts Russia are top-seeded for the World Cup despite being ranked 65th in the world.
Germany head an unchanged top six as defending champions.
France rise one place to seventh, at the expense of the 2010 world champions Spain.
Les Bleus, Germany and Russia are joined by Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium and Poland as top seeds for the December 1st draw in Moscow.
Most critics will pass off Spain’s top table omission as a quirk of bureaucracy and the snapshot in time methodology used to sift the seeds. Nonetheless, it is a reality that suggests a changing off the guard and a situation that would have seemed unthinkable as Spain swept all before them between 2008-2012.
And now Spain find themselves at a crossroads.
Perhaps Spain are entering another golden age as young guns Isco and Marco Asensio lead the way with Andres Iniesta, David De Gea, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique completing a familiar core. But this is no given, despite some impressive results en route to Russia, such as the 3-0 demolition of Italy in September.
The fact is that there are so many things reasons why teams and players decline. Some are obvious, some quite subtle.
Firstly, there is simply the question of time moving on. And you have to wonder, where will Spain’s veteran core be next summer – at the end of a hard campaign fought on all fronts for club and country?
Fatigue is a situation that will afflict all of the top teams in Russia but it definitely won’t help Spain as they look upwards from Pot 2. And with a World Cup squad drawn from sides likely to be competing for all available honours right up until May, there is real sense that Spanish legs may be creaking more than most.
But there is much to occur before the World Cup begins next summer. Teams come together, bond, peak, decline and then are replaced. New stars emerge, others decline and fall out of the picture. That cycle is as inevitable as death and taxes. And Spain coach Julen Lopetegui will have some inevitably hard decisions to make before then.
And it may well be that Spain have had their moment as the world’s best team for now. The great players of this era are beyond their peak and that is reflected in the team’s lustre, performances and results. As Xavi and now Iniesta have succumbed to their inevitable decline, Spain have understandably declined in tandem alongside their star turns.
Secondly, every great team, in every walk of life, contains the seeds of their own demise in terms of a fatal flaw. Think of it as a ticking time bomb, like a hereditary disease or a lurking terminal cancer.
In the case of the great Dutch sides it was a combustible collective character that usually led to implosion in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a major tournament.
French sides go sloppy or become victims of hype over substance.
English sides exhaust themselves by an inability to rest in possession, conserve energy and show composure at key moments. When they meet teams that can match them physically and master them tactically and technically there goose is cooked.
As for Spain there is a sense that they are between eras and that they will have to make a transition to a less doctrinaire, and less prescriptive way of playing football.
As for the Germans? Well we don’t yet know what will fuel their demise.
Third. As rust never sleeps and the seed of demise exists within the fabric of every team there is a simple human truth to consider – the reality of ongoing collective and individual motivation.
After players have won a number of trophies it is very, very hard to go again and scale previous heights. In a game of small details the fire of unfulfilled ambition regularly trumps complacent experience.
Four. Football moves on, opponents catch up, and ten years after genius announces itself it is typically mediocre. This is one of the near physical laws of football managers and their teams. Without innovation (and in some cases revolution) great football teams and coaches reach a fatal impasse.
Fashion moves on too. No Champions League sides are pure devotees of the Spain-Barca possession credo now. The current fashion is for a game of fast, brutal transitions and counter attacks rather than a deliberate possession based ‘death by a thousand passes’.
To retain their previous levels Spain will have to innovate again. And there are two obvious blueprints.
So, perhaps Spain will proceed with a mixed passing style game like Luis Enrique’s solution at Barcelona.
Or alternatively, and more likely, given the lack of a Messi, Suarez, Neymar-type front-line and replacements for Iniesta, Xavi and the rest, they will have to find a more pragmatic plan that fits the resources at the coaches’ disposal. It will likely be a style of play that first and foremost gets results.
Here, the second blueprint is the Italianate, problem solving-based, ‘anti-philosophy’, methodology of Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid.
Zidane selects his sides’ on a game by game basis, fitting personnel and shape to the game at hand. Even at a Real Madrid side aiming for an unprecedented third straight Champions League title, there is no question now of simply going out there and imposing their football on opponents as Spain and Barcelona sought to do so successfully in their just passed golden era.
In 2018, in Russia, Spain may also have to cut their cloth accordingly and it promises to be a fascinating sub-plot of the end of season World Cup.