Pretty Much the World Cup Final became The Friendly That Doesn't Really Matter over a span of 90 painful minutes on Sunday. That's an exaggeration, of course, but there was a palpable sense of disappointment in the wake of Spain's 3-0 Confederations Cup final loss to Brazil. It was time to dilute the disaster.
This match had been set up as a huge occasion: Spain facing the biggest footballing nation of them all, one it had not played over the last six triumphant years, in the final of the only competition that had evaded it. It was a chance to reinforce the belief that Spain is the world's best team, and to achieve an incredible treble: European, World and Confederations Cup champions at the same time.
By the end, the discourse was dramatically different. Sure, some were furious and others demanded immediate and drastic action, but most clung to a calmer analysis. Spain remains the World and European champion. The Confederations Cup matters, of course, but this loss was not the end of the world -- more importantly, it was not the end of the World Cup. No team has ever won the World Cup on the heels of winning the Confederations Cup. Spain lost in the 2009 semifinal to the United States, and it didn't do the team much harm when it returned to South Africa the following year.
Perhaps this was good news, after all. He who takes no consolation wants not consolation, as they say in Spain.
Both views of this result have their merit. Spain did pass up an opportunity and this loss was hard to take. Before the match, most people talked about another Maracanazo not as a potential miracle, but as a likelihood; this would not be Uruguay in 1950. Instead, this was Spain's biggest defeat since 1985, 28 long years ago and back when the idea of Spain losing didn't come as such a surprise. Worse, it deservedly lost. "I won't be making any excuses," coach Vicente del Bosque said afterwards. "They were better than us." Yet at the same time, there are 12 months before the World Cup -- it's 2014 that really matters, not 2013.
But success in 2014 appears a little farther away now, not so much because of loss itself or because Brazil confirmed its candidacy, but rather because of the way that it happened. Spain missed a penalty and created a handful of minor chances in the second half, but as Del Bosque noted, there were no excuses; Brazil could have added more goals. Spain was overrun from the start -- its dominance gone -- and never settled into the game. It went in at half time trailing for the first time in 20 competitive matches and could not reverse the momentum.
This was about as bad as it could have been from Spain's point of view. Álvaro Arbeloa was isolated and beaten by Neymar. Xavi Hernández, who had talked before the match about the importance of possession, could not claim it. Sergio Busquets, playing without the injured Xabi Alonso alongside him, was alone in the middle: at times it appeared there were two of him, but Spain could have done with three. Mata was largely irrelevant; Torres, too. Spain could not overcome the pressure Brazil applied throughout, nor overcome a goal inside two minutes.
Spain was beaten by a very good side, by a country that had not lost at home in 11 years. It happens. As much as the media, supporters and presidents forget this basic fact, football is a sport, and in sport teams can lose. "We had to lose some time," Sergio Ramos said. "We're not machines."
Ramos hinted at a key point: fatigue. Spain had a day's rest fewer than Brazil and went all the way to penalties against Italy in the semifinal. The conditions were difficult: hot and humid, and after a long season that dragged into June. Now, Spain has 12 months to recover and prepare for the World Cup before returning to Brazil in better shape.
It would be daft not to include Spain among the favorites next summer. The talk of changing its style is something of a red herring, too. Spain, rather, has to return to its style, which it was unable to impose at the Maracaná. Besides, it has evolved since 2008. Spain has not been static. The sheer amount of talent it has at its disposal is astonishing: Cesc, Cazorla and Silva did not get a minute tonight, for example. Spain just won the European U21 championships, too. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, from Isco to Thiago to Carvajal and Martínez. Perhaps this defeat will sharpen the team's mindset before next summer.
That may be necessary -- and there's doubt whether Spain has time to regroup. This was a tournament the Spanish could have done without. It has played competitive tournaments in five of the last six summers; meanwhile, the RFEF has taken it across the Atlantic for friendlies and will do so again. The rest Spain needs may not come. Some players' fatigue looks more than merely temporary, not a matter of this summer, but all the others, too; there were echoes of Barcelona's defeat at the hands of Bayern in this reverse. Iniesta was sublime at times, but Spain's reliance on him is problematic.
All of this is easy to say after the event, of course, but there were warning signs beforehand. Spain was held at France and Finland in World Cup qualifying (there's still a minor chance it won't make it to Brazil) and against Italy in the semifinal. It was impressive in extra time, but perhaps fortunate to survive until then. Even Ramos' missed penalty can perhaps be seen as a reflection, a symptom: Spain's last seven penalties have been taken by six different men; four have been missed.
Some of the problems are not entirely new: Álvaro Arbeloa's position to the No. 9/false No. 9 debate; the one-deep midfielder/two-deep midfielder question to the pressing to win the ball back, which is diminishing; the urgent need to protect Xavi and/or prepare for a post-Xavi future (a reality that Barcelona must confront as well, but appears reluctant to do). The latter is a particularly daunting task: a powerful case can be made for declaring Xavi the most important player in Spain's history.
Spain's transition to a new era will almost certainly come after the next World Cup rather than immediately. But for that to be the case, Xavi must reach Brazil in better shape next time. His inclusion in the Confederations Cup squad was a surprise in itself. He must be sharper and fresher, mentally and physically, and so must his teammates: Xavi is a passer who needs to connect with mobile players.
For all of its talent, Spain is also a side that needs to be in the best condition. Against Brazil, it looked spent. Preventing that from happening again is the task now, and, perhaps above all, to learn from this. Better to address the issues now in The Friendly That Doesn't Really Matter than at the World Cup, when it's too late. Before the final, Xavi had talked about how victory could complete a circle. Now, Spain must ensure that defeat does not end a cycle.