Spain in the World Cup: What Went Wrong?

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Stefan de Vrij of the Netherlands scores past Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas during their 2014 World Cup Group B soccer match at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador June 13, 2014. Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Oranje is the new black.

The Dutch, avenging a 1-0 loss to Spain in the World Cup final four years ago, thoroughly humiliated the defending champions, 5-1, on Friday. It was the worst loss a defending World Cup side had ever endured and the five goals were two and a half times the sum that La Furio Roja had allowed in all seven games in South Africa on their march to the Jules Rimet Trophy.

If Batman and Robin are a dynamic duo, what may be said of Robin and Robben, who accounted for four of the Netherlands’ five goals? Both of Holland’s veteran strikers, Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, were brilliant, as each appeared to be exacting an early campaign to seize the Golden Boot, the trophy awarded the tournament’s best footballer. For a nation that has long been a contender but has never won a World Cup, the Netherlands boldly proclaimed that they plan to remain in the southern hemisphere well into July.

Spain took a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute off a Xabi Alonso penalty kick. The penalty had been earned moments earlier by Diego Costa, Spain’s renowned striker who is actually Brazilian by birth --and hence the most loathed man in the nation right now. Replays show that while Costa did trip in the box while fielding a pass, he had actually instigated it. For the second in as many World Cup days, a questionable penalty in the box had given the favored side a point-blank opportunity to take the lead. Xabi, like Neymar for Brazil one day before, did not squander it.

But then something beautiful happened. The Dutch, who had lost 1-0 in extra time to Spain in Johannesburg four years earlier, found inspiration. In the 44th minute Van Persie, 30, the team captain, subtly signaled to teammate Daley Blind, who had the ball just beyond midfield. Blind lofted a beautiful arching pass (Blind in name only) toward the box, to which the tall and fleet afoot Van Persie beat both defenders marking. Van Persie dove skyward, his forehead meeting the ball, which then sailed in a parabola over the head of Spanish goalie Iker Casillas and into the net.

Van Persie landed on his belly --for us ugly Americans, think of Desmond Howard’s touchdown catch for Michigan against Notre Dame in 1990-- though his eyes never left the ball he had just struck. Suddenly it was even, and if there is a goal to be scored in the tournament that is more lovely than that, we all cannot wait to see it.

In the second half Robben, also 30, led a relentless Dutch charge. He scored two wonderful goals by out-dribbling defenders in the box. The latter left Casillas, who had also surrendered an embarrassing goal in the Champions League last month while in the net for Real Madrid, clawing hopelessly on all fours in an attempt to chase him down.

In between Robben’s two second-half goals, his teammates scored two more. Stefan de Vrij headed in a free kick that sailed toward the far post from about a foot beyond the goal. Casillas, poorly positioned on the play, allowed himself to be cut off by Robben. Casillas’ lowest moment came eight minutes later when, while attempting to play a pass back to him from a defender, he struck it too hard. Van Persie, like a hungry vulture, swooped in swiftly, stole the ball from the hapless Spanish keeper, and struck it into the goal. At that point ESPN’s play-by-play man, Jon Champion, aptly stated, “Now the humiliation is complete.”

Although, at 4-1, it wasn’t. Robben would score once more eight minutes later as the loud and loudly dressed fans of the Oranje sustained one long second-half cheer.

For Spain, the five goals were the most they’d surrendered since 1963 in a 6-2 loss to Scotland. They appeared confused and in disarray and their celebrated striker, Costa, had to leave the game in the 56th minute --he played just 10 minutes of the Champions League final for Atletico Madrid, as a hamstring injury continues to dog him.

“I don’t have words to explain it,” Spain’s coach, Vicente Del Bosque, said. “We’ve never been a very defensive team, but we were very weak. We didn’t recognize the ability of van Persie and Robben. We didn’t react properly. They played euphoric, and they hammered us.”

For the Dutch, words were not necessary. There is no way to fully avenge a World Cup final defeat, but Friday’s conquest ameliorated some of the pain. And it drew the attention of all that Germany is not the only European side with serious designs on the Rimet Trophy.

Day 3

Match of the Day

England vs Italy

ESPN, 6 p.m.

The match between the two European titans will take place in Manaus, deep in the Amazonian rainforest, a city that is virtually inaccessible by car and believed to be the most remote World Cup site in the event’s history. Mario Balotelli, the Ghanian-born striker, stars for the Azzurri. Keep an eye on the ageless (35) Andrea Pirlo, though, who looks like a character from Game of Thrones.

The English still have Wayne Rooney, but Daniel Sturridge may be the Three Lions’ most potent weapon as of now.

Wager of the Day

Uruguay over Costa Rica

ABC 3 p.m.

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, the cover boy of Sports Illustrated’s preview issue, is a villain in shin guards, but he is also a potent striker. Teammate Diego Forlan, though on the decline at 35, is a joy to watch. Uruguay advanced to the semis in 2010, while Costa Rica last got out of the group stage in 1990.

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