Twilight for Busquets, last of Spain’s champs at World Cup
AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Sergio Busquets stood in the center circle, hands on hips, a blank look on his face.
He reached soccer’s top step with Spain and now had been stung by La Roja’s third straight elimination from a major tournament on penalty kicks, this time 3-0 to Morocco after a 0-0 draw Tuesday in the round of 16 of the World Cup.
Spain has become a team of the past, its passing game passé.
“What we did was dominate the game but we lacked the goal, that is the reality,” Spain coach Luis Enrique said through a translator, accepting defeat without anger or expressions of sorrow. “There is no point in punishing oneself.”
Now 34, Busquets contributed to Spain’s demise.
Morocco had taken a 1-0 lead in the shootout when Pablo Sarabia put his attempt off a post, and Carlos Soler’s effort was blocked by diving goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, keeping the Moroccans ahead 2-0. Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón saved Badr Benoun’s effort, and Bounou leaped to his right and batted away Busquets’ penalty. Achraf Hakimi followed with the winner.
“It’s always a tossup. This time we got tails,” Busquets said. “We missed the first three penalties, and then it’s very difficult to go through.”
Four years ago, Busquets didn’t shoot in the penalty-kick loss to Russia, also in round of 16. Last year, he hooked a shot and hit a post with the opening kick as Spain beat Switzerland in the European Championship quarterfinals.
One by one, Spain’s greatest generation has aged out of the national team, the defensive duo of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué, the steady superiority of goalkeeper “San Iker” Casillas and the dazzling duo of the midfield, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández. Of the 2012 European champions, only Busquets in defensive midfield and left back Jordi Alba remain.
Spain and its Barcelona core group made “tiki-taka” a style emulated around the globe and that style has lived on. Spain loves the ball, but the opponents have figured out how to neutralize.
If games were decided by passes or possession, Spain would be en route to another title. The Spaniards completed 988 of 1,063 passes to 238 of 331 for the Moroccans. They had 63% possession to 21% for Morocco with 16% contested.
Spain didn’t look like itself even before the opening kickoff. Known for red jerseys, the Spaniards were the visiting team and had to wear alternate light blue jerseys because the Moroccans were in red.
Busquets wore the captain’s armband, the leader and senior statesman. He came up through Barcelona’s La Masia and made his league debut in September 2008, about 2 1/2 months after Spain beat Germany for its first European title since 1964. His national team debut was that April and he helped Spain win its first World Cup in 2010 and then another European Championship in 2012. Busquets was picked for the World Cup All-Star team and the Euro 2012 team of the tournament.
He made his 143rd international appearance against Morocco, third behind Sergio Ramos’ 180 and Iker Casillas’ 167, and with his 17th World Cup appearances he tied those two for the most among Spaniards.
Luis Enrique and a pair of Moroccans tried to console Busquets. He remained in the center circle for a full four minutes before heading to an onfield television interview. Busquets wouldn’t address his national team future.
“Now the important thing is the team and not me,” he said. “It’s a difficult night. We’ll pick ourselves up and use it as a learning experience. We’re in a good dynamic, with young people. This is going to make them stronger.”