Insight article

What Spain’s ouster can teach us about institutional reform

This has been an extraordinary World Cup so far.

I won’t pretend I saw this coming, but in retrospect there was some writing on the wall. A year ago, in the Confederations Cup – a sort of precursor to the World Cup – Spain did beat Tahiti 10 to nil, but then lost to host Brazil 3-0 in the final in unimpressive fashion.

Spain has dominated international football for quite some time, winning the World Cup in 2010 and the European championship in 2008 and 2012.

Last night, Spain fell 2-0 to Chile after a remarkable 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in the opener. After just two of three matches in the group stage, Spain is out.

Several attackers and fixtures of Spain’s midfield engine room – Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andrés Iniesta, David Villa – are into their 30s. And more importantly, their signature tiki-taka style of play, which relies on an endless, dance-like series of short passes, seems to have been figured out.

The Dutch and the Chileans rather impolitely refused to allow the Spaniards to knock the ball back and forth and constantly find open space the way they’ve been used to doing all these years. That crestfallen look on the Spanish players’ faces seemed to suggest they knew they’d lost something quite fundamental to their success, their trusty ace in the hole.

It may be too soon to say that tiki-taka is dead. But what seems apparent is that Spain found a winning system that worked for them. While they were milking it for all it was worth, the world around them was changing.

Then again, perhaps it was simply the pressure on the players to keep winning, whether in the World Cup, the Euro, or the Champions’ League. These things are of course cyclical; maybe it wasn’t age or tactics at fault but a psychology that says someone will always rise, eventually, to take your place. This kind of thinking might make the Apples and Googles of this world quiver just a bit.

Either way, Spain’s defeat reminded us that change is always happening somewhere, whether it be within the institution or surrounding it. There’s nothing permanent about a winning formula. Change will happen; the best institutions can do would be to manage it, to stay proactive, to keep making decisions – even if they’re wrong decisions.

Nailia Tasseel