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Soccer

Spain Touches The Sky

Marco Asensio of Spain celebrates with team mates after scoring during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group E match between Spain and Costa Rica at Al Thumama Stadium on November 23, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Stu Forster/Getty Images

It was as good as it gets for Spain. And I don’t only mean for this Spain team. One of the coolest things about soccer is its varied stylistic traditions, which emerge out of specific cultural contexts and can define how a club, a city, a country, and even a continent feels it is meant to play the game. So the way Spain beat Costa Rica on Wednesday, not only the margin of victory—7–0, in case you were wondering—but the fashion in which it was achieved, is not only a reflection of what this Spain can do but is also a representation of the Spanish ideal.

I’m going to embed a video of highlights from the game, and you should watch it, because the goals are fantastic. But you should know that the goals themselves are a poor summary of why the game was so good. This isn’t because the goals were deceptive or that the match was more competitive than the scoreline might suggest. In fact the score was wholly appropriate, both the seven and the zero. Though the Spaniards scored with nearly every other shot they took (they fired off 17 total), they were so efficient in front of goal in large part because almost every chance they had, even the 10 they didn’t convert, was a big one. As for the zero, the more indicative stat testifying to Spain’s “defensive” prowess—scare quotes because the vast majority of Spain’s “defending” involved keeping the ball so that Costa Rica never even had a chance to attack—was this: the Ticos took a combined zero shots all game. Not zero shots on target, zero shots of any type.

Seven goals, zero shots allowed, more than 80 percent possession—in a word, Spain was overwhelming. Completely, utterly overwhelming.

So yes, a five-minute highlight reel from a match with seven goals is necessarily going to show little more than goal after goal after goal, skipping most of the buildup of those goals and also the long interstitial stretches between goals, the parts of the game that make the game what it actually is. But the main reason why the above highlights don’t really capture the true impact of Spain’s performance is because Spain as a team isn’t really about scoring goals.

It’s sort of a question of means and ends. For some teams, goals are the ends and the style of play is the means to those ends. The goals justify the play, and the way you can tell if the team succeeded is by looking at their goals. For Spain, it’s the play itself that is the end, and the goals are simply consequences of that end well achieved.

It might sound a little funny when put like that, but I think everyone already understands the idea intuitively. Spain—this Spanish team and the tradition of Spanish soccer more generally—is often teased for caring more about ball possession and passing statistics than those common and unrefined actions like shooting and scoring. The caricature of Spain is a team with one goalkeeper and 10 midfielders who dart around in circles flicking the ball between one another, almost oblivious to the fact that the ostensible object of the game is to kick the ball into the net. (Not coincidentally, Spain started the match against Costa Rica without a traditional striker on the pitch and with a midfielder playing in defense.) If the joke about Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal was that they always tried to walk the ball into the net, for Spain it would be that they don’t even know a net exists.

So to understand why Wednesday’s match was such a triumph for Spain, you wouldn’t really find it in a compilation of the goals. Instead, it was in Sergio Busquets firing off dozens of first-time, three-yard passes with frightening accuracy, always with the exactly correct tension and location, always hitting his teammate’s stronger foot. It was in Marco Asensio, a natural attacking midfielder dressing for this match as a striker (and not a false 9!), supporting the game with passes and well-timed movements deep and wide to maintain Spain’s unique blend of safety and threat. It was in Pedri’s subtle but profound influence, how he simultaneously felt and responded to what the game was asking for while also imposing his own will on the proceedings when he saw fit, orchestrating the entire match without once playing a direct hand in either scoring or assisting any of Spain’s goals. I know they’re going to take this video down, but Pedri’s game was so goddamn good that I’m going to include these individual highlights anyway:

Spain has had better teams than this one and has of course played and won bigger games than this group-stage match against a wildly overmatched Costa Rica. Still, this was Spain at its peak Spainness, the realization of a national identity, and so far the most thoroughly impressive single showing at this World Cup to boot. Spain should be incredibly proud of this game and this team, and it’s not really even because they scored seven goals and allowed none.

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