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Shocking, early exit for Spain in World Cup

SoccerColumnSportsFIFA World CupFIFA Confederations Cup
Defending champions are eliminated after a 2-0 loss to Chile
Rest of the world seems to have caught up to the Spanish passing game
It's the biggest surprise but not the only one after a week in Brazil

Boy, did Spain get old fast.

Not so much its players as much as its style of play.

Remember when tiki-taka, Spain's short, possession-heavy passing game, was going to revolutionize soccer? In Brazil, it looked about as revolutionary as the single wing.

As a result, Spain was eliminated from the World Cup after losing to Chile, 2-0, on Wednesday. Spain was humiliated by the Netherlands, 5-1, in its opener last week, leaving it with no chance to advance out of group play despite having one game left.

It's the second time in as many World Cups that the defending champion has gone out in the first round. But at least Italy managed a pair of draws four years ago in South Africa. Spain now needs no less than a tie with Australia — which also cannot advance — on Monday to avoid becoming the first champion to be knocked out with three consecutive losses.

Spain came to Brazil as one of the tournament favorites, but it was obvious before it got here that other teams had caught up since the Spanish won their second straight European Championship two years ago. And it really wasn't that hard to catch them because Spain stopped moving forward a long time ago.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque has added few wrinkles to the tiki-taka over the years and, aside from the addition of Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa, made even fewer changes to his lineup.

So opponents became content to let Spain's talented midfielders play kickball at the center circle, only to clog the passing lanes when Spain approached the attacking third of the field and then counterattacked quickly when the ball went the other way. That allowed Spain to again dominate possession and build wide leads in both shots and corner kicks in its two games in Brazil.

But the elegant tiki-taka's Kryptonite is physical play, and the Dutch and the Chileans — both of whom are on to the second round — took advantage of that, building ever wider leads on the scoreboard. The Spaniards, who gave up two goals in seven games in 2010, have yielded seven in two games here.

So now comes the Spanish Inquisition. Why didn't Del Bosque update his scheme when it became apparent opponents had figured it out? After rolling through the 2012 European Championship unbeaten — which, combined with a win in the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup, gave it an unprecedented three consecutive major titles — Spain lost to Brazil in last summer's Confederations Cup and looked vulnerable in World Cup qualifying.

The signs of a coming fall were obvious.

Yet in Brazil, Del Bosque stubbornly stuck with some aging members of his golden generation, especially 33-year-old goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who looked slow, made bad decisions and even drew a yellow card in the second half against the Netherlands.

That's likely to cost the 63-year-old Del Bosque, the third-longest-tenured coach in this World Cup, his job after six years atop the national team. But though the pain of Spain was plain, its quick exit was just one of many surprises during the first week of this World Cup.

Either England or Uruguay, also former World Cup champions, could join Spain on the sidelines with a loss Thursday. That would be an unexpectedly early exit for England or Uruguay, who meet in Sao Paulo needing at least a tie to stay alive.

On the other hand Mexico, which has rebounded nicely from its disastrous qualifying campaign, is a pleasant surprise and appears headed to the second round behind the breathtaking play of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who has shut out Brazil and Cameroon.

Mexico was one of three teams from the lowly CONCACAF to win its first game, joining the U.S., which beat Ghana, and Costa Rica, which stunned Uruguay. Of the four World Cup teams from the North American and Caribbean region, only Honduras is winless — and goalless — after a week in Brazil.

And speaking of Brazil, the hosts are facing enormous pressure to justify the record $11.5 billion their government spent on these games — and the players appear to be feeling that. After giving up an early own goal in their opener with Croatia, the Brazilians needed two controversial calls to rally for a 3-1 win. Then they failed to score against Mexico.

They'll need to regroup in the knockout stage to satisfy their demanding fans.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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