Two of the tournament’s most potent and experienced teams, Spain and Portugal, are effectively out of the World Cup after just two group matches, a scenario that no one would have predicted two weeks ago. How could this happen?
Three days after Spain’s historic collapse against Holland, a confident Portugal team took the field against Joachim’s Lowe’s prototypical Germany in what promised to be one of the top encounters of the week. By half-time, Portuguese hopes had been annihilated by the German machine that could have easily run up the score. The same shocking incredulity that hit the Spanish team in its opener was visible on the Lusitan faces, as Portugal self-destructed with poor decisions and costly lapses of concentration.
A couple of days after Portugal’s catastrophic opener, Spain was officially eliminated by an exuberant Chile team propelled by its tremendous supporters. With hope that the Dutch blow-out was a one-off disaster, all expected the Spain that dominated world football over the past decade like no other team in modern times to resurface. But that Spain never did and never will resurface. Same players, entirely different performance. Spain played without heart, without fighting spirit, without urgency, without passion, hoping to sneak its way through the group stage with a mediocre effort. Having won almost every tournament in play over the past ten years, the greatest generation of Spanish football exited the world stage with humiliation and pain.
Facing a similar fate, Portugal stepped on the field against the USA needing three points desperately. Yet even after being gifted an early lead, Portugal was unrecognizable from a technical point of view. A disjointed midfield marked by a erratic stars in Nani and Ronaldo, a useless center forward, cracks in the middle of the defense were all on display. While the USA played with enthusiasm and great effort, Portugal never controlled the match even while leading for an hour. It is hard to explain why the level of performance dropped so much for both Portugal and Spain at the World Cup. Perhaps the very long season most of these players had left them not only physically but also mentally exhausted. But there is something off in the chemistry of both squads. Despite playing together for many years, these two squads never looked comfortable and united in spirit. Spain was clearly not prepared mentally. Portugal may have simply waited for Cristiano to carry the team from his customary limelight.
Amazingly, Portugal can still go through. Varela’s last second strike resurrected an eliminated team’s chances from zero to slim. A win over Ghana by three goals or more coupled with a heavy loss by the USA at the hands of a very motivated Germany could see the Portuguese miraculously get through. But it is unlikely. Unless another Portugal steps on the field, it will be Ghana’s day to dream of advancing.