Spain vs Russia Is the World Cup’s Version of the Hare and the Tortoise


Spain vs Russia Is the World Cup’s Version of the Hare and the Tortoise

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

We are at the business end of the World Cup now. The knockout stages have begun, and the margin for error has reduced drastically. This added incentive of survival was on full display on the first day of the Round of 16, when France, Argentina, Portugal, and Uruguay locked horns. Unfortunately, Day Two didn’t showcase any of the same fire and killer instinct that saw ten goals scored on Saturday night, and two GOATs get on the plane back home. Both of Sunday’s matches, Russia vs Spain and Croatia vs Denmark, were tepid affairs that saw full time arrive with the teams tied at 1-1. Both matches went to penalties, and the only difference between the two was that nobody could have seen Spain losing to the hosts Russia at this stage.

Roman Zobnin of Russia is challenged by Isco of Spain.

Fred Lee/Getty Images

To be fair, this has been a World Cup of upsets. Entering the tournament as favourites has proved to be the undoing of many a team. Argentina, Portugal, and Germany are just some of the teams that were predicted to dominate the tournament, and are now watching the games from their television sets. This odd state of affairs was foreshadowed even during the qualifying stages, as perennial favourites Italy and The Netherlands failed to book their tickets to Russia.

Now, Spain joins its fellow heavyweights in licking its wounds and watching as teams less popular than them progress. Last night, while watching the former champions ineffectually wash against the Iron Curtain that was the Russian defence, the old fable of the tortoise and the hare kept coming up unbidden in my mind. In the childhood story, the tortoise and the hare agree to a race, which the hare assumes he will comfortably win. After taking the lead, he decides to rest on his laurels and take a nap. Meanwhile, the tortoise keeps going, and while the hare sleeps, crosses the finish line and wins the race.

While the Spanish team did not literally fall asleep on the pitch, there were times where it felt like they were trying to put the audience to sleep with their brand of play. Instead of having us count sheep though, they were making us count passes. The final statistics stated that Spain completed a whopping 1,029 passes during the length of the game. For comparison, Russia completed 202. For long, seemingly interminable swathes of the game, all Spain did was keep the ball away from Russia, stubbornly sticking to their famed tiki-taka philosophy even when it became apparent that it wasn’t going to faze the Russians. A blockade of Russian bodies made it near impossible for Spain to get the ball into the penalty box. For all their superior passing and possession, Spain could not top Russia in the one department that truly matters in football – scoring goals. While the hare, Spain, wasted its energy on flash and adhering to an obsolete philosophy, the tortoise, Russia, quietly got the job done through a very confident penalty shootout.

At this World Cup, miracles do happen and underdogs go home as winners.

The tortoise and hare scenario is becoming commonplace at the World Cup. Argentina’s defeat to Croatia smacked of it, as did Germany’s capitulation to South Korea. In Argentina’s case, it was on over-reliance on the magical powers of Leo Messi, and in Germany’s, perhaps winning every one of their qualifying games before the World Cup imbued this team with a false and misplaced sense of confidence. Now, Russia has reaped the benefits of Spain playing a style of football they were well-prepared to counter. Each of these results came as a shocker to audiences fully expecting the hare to win. “Impossible is Nothing” is not just a sportswear slogan, but apparently also the mantra of this World Cup.

What does this mean for the remaining matches? Given the wholesale unpredictability of this tournament, nobody can say for certain. Perhaps this state of affairs implies that Europe’s long, suffocating stranglehold of football might be coming to an end. Certainly, it proves that at this World Cup, miracles do happen and underdogs go home as winners. The old guard has grown soft, and new contenders have risen to take their place. Don’t write off surprising survivors like Mexico and Japan just yet, because in a tournament where the top contender for the Golden Boot is Own Goal, the race isn’t over until the tortoise says it’s over.