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Who’s to blame for Spain’s World Cup failure?

Spain's World Cup roller-coaster ride finally ground to a halt on Sunday and the finger-pointing began after their third consecutive failure at a major tournament.

Who's to blame for Spain's World Cup failure?
Spain fans are gutted at the loss. But who's to blame?

Following humiliation at the hands of the Netherlands in 2014 and a limp defeat to Italy at Euro 2016, this was perhaps the most gauling exit of all, given it came at the hands of Russia, ranked 70th in the world, just above Macedonia and El Salvador. 

It would be a stretch to say Russia deserved their win, with 26 per cent possession and only six attempts at goal compared with Spain's 25, but they had a plan, stuck to it, and fought to the bitter end. 

A 4-3 victory on penalties, after the sides were locked at 1-1 at the end of extra time, sends the hosts through to their first World Cup quarter-final since 1970. 

Spain's dominance will do nothing to ease the disappointment following what can now be judged as a truly farcical World Cup campaign.    

Julen Lopetegui, the coach fired two days before Spain's opening match, and Luis Rubiales, the Spanish Football Federation president who fired him, will be circled as the key offenders. 

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Julen Lopetegui's appointment at Real Madrid cost him the Spain manager  job. Photo: AFP

But Fernando Hierro, Lopetegui's replacement, and David de Gea, who endured a torrid tournament in goal, will take their share of the blame too.    

It was a pity that the last match of Andres Iniesta, who later confirmed his international retirement, in the end became little more than a footnote.    

“What started badly, ended badly,” wrote Marca. “All the problems began with the dismissal of Lopetegui and then continued with a team lacking in form and ideas.” 

Rubiales was quick to make clear he felt no remorse for sacking Lopetegui, who was clumsy in the way he handled his pending move to Real Madrid, but seemingly dismissed because of hurt, personal pride. 

“Today there is pain, as we have been eliminated,” Rubiales said. “But you can be calm when you know you have acted with responsibility, conviction and values. You cannot later look in hindsight because of a result on the pitch.”   

Positive start

Many would argue it was clear at the time that changing the coach two days before Spain's opening game was unlikely to benefit the team.   

With Hierro in place, however, there were positive signs against Portugal, when Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick overshadowed an assured Spain performance in a 3-3 draw.

But defensive errors and tactical rigidity soon came to the fore as poor displays followed against Iran, Morocco and Russia.   

Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were both guilty, the latter because of a handball that gave Russia their equaliser, but De Gea left as the principal villain.


De Gea lets in a goal during the penalty shootout. Photo: AFP

Against Portugal, he allowed Ronaldo's shot to slip through his hands.

Against Russia, Igor Akinfeev starred in the shootout while he failed to save at least two spot-kicks he might have kept out.

By the end, De Gea had made only one save all tournament.   

As the late stand-in, Hierro may be spared such stinging criticism but he dropped Iniesta and Dani Carvajal against Russia in Moscow, only to bring both on as substitutes, and then replaced Diego Costa with Iago Aspas, who arguably should have been on from the start.

Rubiales sidestepped questions about who will be the coach long-term but Hierro is surely unlikely to continue.   

Whoever it is, they will now face the same two-pronged brief that Lopetegui was tasked with two years ago: to restore confidence and blood the younger generation.

Of the starting eleven against Russia, only Marco Asensio will be younger than 30 by the time the next World Cup comes around. Pique, Ramos, David Silva, Costa and Sergio Busquets will be 33 or older.

It means those left from the triple triumph of Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 will either be gone or down to the last few and that could pave the way for an evolution of style too.

A debate has emerged during this tournament around Spain's possession game and it might be that a new manager decides to update the old, winning formula.   

But for all the talk of tactics and generational change, Spain's 2018 World Cup will be remembered for a simple act of self-sabotage.

This was the team that was ready and then on the eve of the tournament, sacked their coach.

By AFP's Thomas Allnutt

READ ALSO: When Sunderland AFC gave Spain a lesson in football it sparked national introspection

FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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