Aidan Smith: More direct, less romantic football

Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas stares at the ground in despair. Picture: Getty
Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas stares at the ground in despair. Picture: Getty
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EVERYONE’S an artist in Brazil. Or, at least, everyone’s wielding a paintbrush right now – better still a spraycan, writes Aidan Smith

From the just-finished stadia to the green-hued urchins in the weird opening ceremony to the jungle landing-strip of a pitch for England’s opening game against Italy last night, they’re skooshing everything that moves and, just to be sure, everything that doesn’t.

Then there are the graffiti gangs, daubing slogans of protest on a superabundance of issues: “Need food, not football”, “F**k Fifa”, “Rod off, Mr Petrie” (sorry, don’t know how that one got in there). And, of course, the referees.

What a fantastic innovation the ten-yard spray is. It’s like Mace for recalcitrant defenders and defensive-wall chancers. We can quibble about some refs having longer strides than others and wonder whether Craig Thomson could outmarch Tiny Wharton, or if he merely fancies that he could. We can, if the spray catches on, speculate about which officials would be unable to resist completing their marker with a wiggly pretentious flourish. We can probably guess who’ll wear the holster for the aerosol high like John Wayne and who’ll opt for low on the hip, trying to be cool. We can ask ourselves whether, upon discovering the spray had been left in the dressing-room, there would be an official brave enough to pull out his bald-patch concealer instead. But at last there can be no more dispute. Ten yards is ten yards. It’s written in the grass.

But there doesn’t seem much point equipping refs with the latest gizmos if they’re going to make such chronically bad decisions as Yuichi Nishimura’s penalty award in the opening match. That error, plus a few other bad calls, earned the Japanese the unwanted tag of “homer”. After all the acrimony and scandal beforehand, everyone was agreed this World Cup needed the host nation to start well on the pitch – but no one said they needed this kind of helping hand.

The blunders continued in the second game when two perfectly good goals by Mexico’s Giovani dos Santos were chalked off.

Even this early you wondered if the officials were going to be the story, picking up from the end of the last World Cup and Howard Webb’s 14-yellow-card shocker.

Then in the third match, a re-run of the 2010 final, Spain’s Iker Casillas was clattered by Holland’s Robin van Persie for a goal which shouldn’t have stood. But a bigger story was unfolding. The champions were collapsing.

Over three major tournaments but seemingly for an age, we’ve watched Sergio Busquets short-pass to Xavi who short-passed to Andres Iniesta who then gave it back to Xavi. This was the way the world turned, and the rest of football was powerless to stop it. Barcelona’s tiki-taka triumvirate seemed to have drawn circles round themselves – with a prototype of the refs’ spray, perhaps – and the opposition couldn’t get close. The circles acted like ropes in an art gallery. You stood a suitable distance back and you admired. The opposition seemed to be admiring Spain and we certainly did. Then, some of us got bored with tiki-taka, our attention deficit disorder demanding the new thing. Eventually, other teams worked out how to stop the Spirograph wheel of flicks and caresses. First Barca were thrashed, with Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben heavily involved. Now Spain have been thrashed, with Robben again the arch-destroyer.

Spain triumphed four years ago by giving everyone a head start and losing their first game but this feels different. This feels like the end.

Coach Vicente del Bosque tried to anticipate the end by reinforcing his sometimes strikerless formation with an old-fashioned frontman, Diego Costa, but this didn’t work. The little matadors in the middle of the park weren’t used to being on the same side as the bull and, on Friday night’s evidence, Costa is an overrated one. But the problems were everywhere. Xavi, who normally touches the ball more than any other player, barely figured. Casillas looked what he’s been all season – a shaky goalkeeper. Sergio Ramos looked what he always looks without the imperious Carlos Puyol alongside him – a dodgy defender. Fernando Torres, when he came on, looked as if he’d never score another goal, ever.

Maybe we should be talking about the Dutch and especially Van Persie’s incredible diving header – one for which he strained every sinew, or all those sinews not strained in the name of Manchester United last season, which amounts to the same thing. But this Dutch side haven’t done anything yet, whereas this Spain achieved everything and, if Friday truly was the end for them, then they deserve a decent obituary.

I was never one of those who got bored with tiki-taka. The delirious rhythm had dropped a notch, and it needed younger men to lift it again, but Cesc Fabregas is not quite Xavi and David Silva is not quite Iniesta. The latter’s pass to Silva which should have put Spain two up and won them the game probably won’t be bettered all tournament and, if it is, I’ll eat my montera. That’s a matador’s hat, you philistines, and I hope you enjoy your more direct, less romantic football from here on in.

It’s sad when your teams fail, although sometimes they can come again. Brazil, an old love, didn’t deserve their win over Croatia. Presumably they’re not going to rely on dodgy refereeing all the way to the final and will turn in some performances worthy of their billing and their tradition.

Much will depend on Neymar. The rest of the front three look ordinary and the midfield lacks an artist. Far lovelier Brazil sides never won the World Cup but maybe, in view of Spain’s demise, this one has timed the more pragmatic and muscular approach just right. The home crowd don’t seem to care, just as long as glory is theirs.

Indeed, they exalt the infernal David Luiz, and cheer his every hoof into the stands. An agricultural clearance is still an agricultural clearance, even if it’s despatched in lovely buttercup yellow and, frankly, I saw more than enough of them during the domestic season. Surely this Brazil will want to be written for posterity and not with a referee’s marker, which fades after a minute.