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What HAPPENED to the Spanish National Team?

5 minute read Published May 29, 2024

For a while there it seemed like Spain would win every single championship for the foreseeable future. They had a core of experienced players like Puyol and Xavi plus a whole host of young players just coming through. 

And for years they just kept on winning. The 2008 Euros, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euros. Then, in 2014, something happened. They’d qualified to the World Cup and the team was ranked number one in the world. That year, both teams in the Champions League final were Spanish – Atletico and Real Madrid. Spain came into the tournament as one of the favourites. Just look at the team that started the first game. Incredible.

Spain were in group B with the Netherlands, who they played in the first match, Chile and Australia. The first game was a disaster. Spain went 1-0 up, which stood until just before half time. In the second half, however, the Dutch put in another gear. They went on to score four more goals, and Spain lost the game 5-1. They’d then go on to lose against Chile with 2-0 and at which point they were eliminated. At the group stage. Their 3-0 win against Australia meant nothing.

In the last three tournaments, Spain has only gotten to the round of 16. So what happened to the Spanish national team?

Golden Generation

Obviously, Spain had a so-called golden generation. There were world class players in every single position. And on the bench. Puyol, Ramos and Pique were the centre back options. Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Busquets and Fabregas challenged for the centre mid spots. 

Cesc Fabregas. Photo: Shutterstock

Not only that, but most of the players played together, at Barca and Real Madrid. The Barca team of 2009 has been called the greatest team of all time. And the core of that team was Spanish and all selected for the national squad. The tiki taka style was at its peak and a large part of the team had been drilled on it by one of the best coaches in the world, Pep Guardiola.

So the success of the Spanish national team in the three consecutive tournaments they won wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was that they’d drop off so much, despite the core of the team still being there.

Of course, by the time the 2014 World Cup came around, Guardiola had already been at Bayern for two years. Those tactics they were used to be able to rely on, even in the national team, were gone.

More International Players in Barca and Real

Additionally, in 2012 62% of the Barcelona squad were eligible for the Spanish national team. In 2014, that number had gone down to just 30%. There wasn’t a big core of the national team playing for the same club anymore. A similar trend can be seen in Real Madrid, although they’ve always had more international players.

So they bought more players. That also meant that fewer players from the academies made it into the first teams of the two Spanish giants. Long term, that’d come to haunt them.

Speaking of youth. It’s only natural, when a team has had the kind of success the Spanish national team had in those tournaments, you’re hesitant to change things. Especially when those players are still performing at a very high level. But eventually it stunts the growth of the team. It makes it hard for younger players to break in. That golden generation became the olden generation.

The 2008 Euros winning squad’s average age was 26.0 years, the youngest in the entire tournament. The average age for the 2014 World Cup was one of the oldest at 28.3.

Lack of Striker (and Goals)

It’s been a problem for Spain for a few tournaments now, that they’re lacking a world class striker. Yes, Alvaro Morata is a very good player, for very good teams, but he doesn’t really fit the kind of football they’re looking to play.

Back in the golden generation they had Fernando Torres and Diego Costa. Going into the Euros this season, Morata is really the only out and out striker.

Looking Forward

So, the lack of team cohesion, the reluctance to bring up younger players and the lack of a striking threat are all reasons Spain have been struggling. But what’s the outlook?

Lamine Yamal. Photo: Shutterstock

There’s a lot of talent in the provisional squad for this summer's Euros. Lamine Yamal stands out. The Barcelona youngster will still only be 16 when the tournament begins, which is crazy. Pedri and Fermin, also from Barclona, are both 21 and so is Athletic Bilbao’s Nico Williams Jr. So there are some really good young players in the squad.

Lately though, Barcelona has been giving their young players so many minutes, they’re getting all sorts of injuries. Since, at this point, they barely have money to buy players, they’re relying heavily on youth players. And it takes its toll. 

Once hailed as the “new Messi”, Ansu Fati is now out on loan to get his form back after four surgeries. The now 21 year old debuted at 16 for Barca but injuries derailed what looked to be a very promising career. Gavi has been playing a lot in the last two seasons and has been having issues lately. He could not be selected for the national team. It’s an issue.

The big clubs need to start bringing up and protecting their youth. The Spanish national team has a lot of potential over the coming years, if they can stay fit and keep developing.

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