World Cup: Is This the Beginning of Spain's Decline?

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2013

GIJON, SPAIN - MARCH 22:  Juan Mata (R) and Alvaro Negredo of Spain react after Finland scored the equalizing goal during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier between Spain and Finland at estadio El Molinon on March 22, 2013 in Gijon, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

To say Spain have been successful in the past five years is quite the understatement.

La Roja have enjoyed a period of unprecedented world domination, picking up the spoils at Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, becoming the first team to win three consecutive Euro and World titles in the process.

On their way to becoming the world's number one ranked team, Spain went 35 matches undefeated between 2006 and 2009, a record matched only by Brazil. Today, their 19-match unbeaten run stretches back to November 2011.

This Spanish side is considered the "golden generation," with some even arguing that this is the greatest side of all time.

Despite dominating for five years, the average age of the squad is just 26.7 years. The average age of the Euro 2008 squad was only marginally lower at exactly 26 years.

Xavi, Iniesta, Ramos et al are no strangers to breaking records wearing red and yellow, but they might be on the verge of breaking a pretty undesirable record. It is possible that Spain will become the first World Cup holders to fail to qualify for the following tournament.

Of course, this unprecedented upset is only a possibility because the rules have recently been changed: Spain are only the second World Cup winners who have not been granted an automatic right to defend their title, after Italy had to sing for their supper through qualification in 2010.

So far, 2014 World Cup Qualification is not proceeding in the effortless fashion in which Vicente Del Bosque's side approaches most challenges. In UEFA Qualification Group I—which has one less team than the other groups—Spain sit in second place, thanks to home draws with France and Finland.

If the Spanish falter at the Stade de France on Tuesday, they will fall five points behind Les Bleus. While there is little possibility of being caught by Georgia or Belarus and slipping out of the group stage, there is a real chance that Spain will need to run the roulette of the playoffs. Waiting there could be potential banana skins in the form of Sweden, England or Iberian foes Portugal.

If this Spanish side cannot beat Finland at home—a side ranked 87th in the world—one can only imagine the perilous situation if they meet a Portugal side, whom they could not beat or score against in normal time at Euro 2012.

Much like their 1-1 draw with France in October, it was a late goal that caught Spain by surprise when Finland visited El Molinón last Friday. The Huuhkajat were unfazed by the unrelenting pressure put upon them, and capitalized on a rare break in the 79th minute.

Spain enjoyed a staggering 78 percent of possession on Friday, but still failed to convert this to three points. As Spanish newspaper Marca points out, the national side are obsessed with possession, often at the expense of creating attacking chances.

Spain are ranked 17th in the world in terms of attempts on goal, and have had around a third fewer shots per match in qualifying than the likes of Slovakia, Austria and Portugal.

When considering the shortcomings of the golden generation, it is this over zealous use of "tiki-taka" football stands out. With their "false 9" tactics that came to prominence in Euro 2012, La Roja almost became a parody of themselves and their preference to pass the ball among themselves instead of shooting at goal.

So, is this the beginning of Spain's decline, or a minor blip in their continued dominance?

After all, what goes up must come down. No team can stay dominant forever —just look at the current state of the Brazil side that won two World Cups and four Copa Americas between 1994 and 2007.

Yet it may be premature to label this point as the beginning of the end.

Many jumped to the same conclusion when Barcelona were outclassed by Milan at the San Siro in February. The Blaugrana have convincingly won each of their six matches since, including a 4-0 rout of the Italians.

If Spain triumph against France on Tuesday, the rumors of their demise will have been greatly exaggerated.

Yet Les Bleus are on a 13-match unbeaten run in World Cup and Euro qualifiers and will go into Tuesday's crunch qualifier knowing they can win, based largely on the fact that they should have won in Madrid last October. If they do, they may also take La Roja's confidence and their chances of making it to Brazil next summer.