A Historiography of Decline

A mere five days have passed since The Netherland’s riotous victory over a Spain side displaying all the acute symptoms of a team on the edge of implosion, yet the result has already taken on a sense of era-definition. Following years of astonishing consistency and success, Spain’s seemingly unshakeable occupation of the pedestal at the elite end of the game suddenly looks precarious. If indeed this is to be the end of the Spanish dynasty, the historical reverberations will be on a par with the breaking up of the Aranycsapat following the Hungarian Revolution, or the dismantling of a Brazilian team that secured successive World Cups in 1958 and 1962. Such epoch-defining events inevitably lead a scramble for the history books to try and make sense of what is unfolding. Should Friday’s result represent the genesis of a superpower’s terminal diminution, there is one that tells us everything we could need to know.

Ideologically problematic and historiographically flawed, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire nevertheless remains the exemplary text for the crumbling of any dynasty. Just short of two and a half centuries have passed since its publication, yet Gibbon’s attempt to rationalize the unavoidable cyclicality of history retains an extraordinary resonance. When attempting to untangle the dwindling of anything from global superpowers to corporate juggernauts, there is no better staring point.

Gibbon’s central thesis was that the decline of the Roman Empire – and thus, the archetypal factor behind the fall of any great dynasty – was a steady erosion of the moral character of the populace. Even leaving aside the failures of monocausality or Gibbon’s strained desire for an all-encompassing moral answer that fitted Enlightenment thinking, it would be tendentious to draw any links here with Spain. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso et al could hardly be said to have turned up for the tournament in the same shabby condition that England found themselves in at South Africa, after all. Nor has there been any collective eschewal of the necessary labour of sporting pre-eminence for the shambling hedonism of, say, 2006-vintage Ronaldinho.

Equally, whilst semi-spurious links can be drawn between the factors Gibbon cites as secondary to Rome’s decline and Spain’s current malaise – emergent enclaves of intrigue within military and political elites creating the kind of climate of self-serving perma-hostility that looks likely to define Spain’s fracturing along Real-Barcelona lines, for example, or the increasing reliance on foreign mercenaries sapping cohesion and morale (hello, Diego Costa) – history’s instructiveness is here structural rather than directly causational.

Structurally, Spain’s defeat felt at once brutally sudden and, paradoxically, incremental – as if an entire cycle of decline had been crammed into ninety minutes. From the moment of Van Persie’s equalizer, a Battle of Adrianople that, by virtue of its brutal simplicity, wrought realization about Spain’s vulnerability, the sense that history was starting to outrun Spain was palpable. With each Dutch goal, another notch along the path of decline was carved – beginning with a collective loss of Spanish nerve; division; self-immolative recrimination; and finally an abdication of responsibility. Throughout the final ten minutes, players wandered in a traumatized daze, unable to comprehend what had happened. The lackadaisical tragicomedy of Fernando Torres’ late miss set the seal on this incomprehension, Torres trying to impose an affectatious nonchalance on events that had long overtaken him. A ‘business as usual’ hubris that bore the airs of denial – a well-heeled senator strolling to the Forum, willfully oblivious to the Vandals at the Gate. (Holland, for their part, made for excellent Barbarians. The savagery of their early tactics hinting at a repeat of the 2010 final, before this gave way to a ferocious incisiveness staggering in its brutality as it exposed the dispirited flabbiness of Spain’s rearguard.)

Of course, the manner in which Spain’s defeat feels definitive is at odds with the ostensibly provisional nature of their cycle of decline. This was, after all, a first defeat in a year. And yet, with the sense of decline around a Barcelona that forms the ideological kernel of Del Bosque’s side, there has been a burgeoning end-of-empire feel around what might be casually called ‘the Spanish method’ throughout the season. A creeping sense of stylistic obsolescence, magnified by the success of the Madrid clubs and their ruthlessly-efficient, high-octane melding of the Bundesliga and high-functioning football autism of Jose Mourinho.

As in structure, so in tone. Coverage of Spain’s abject showing echoed the morose air that permeates Gibbons’ writing. As each Dutch goal was rattled in, the BBC’s commentary team frantically emphasized the historicity of what was unfolding; a totem crumbling before our eyes. Passing initially through pathos and on to disbelief, by the last five minutes Steve Wilson and Mark Lawrenson were giddy with jouissance at La Roja’s conformance to their own narrative conceit. Wilson and Lawrenson may lack the historiographical gravitas of Gibbon – though the latter’s 2006 observation that, “eeh, Paul Robinson looks like a big banana running at you”, comes a close second – but they certainly understood the emotional cachet of seeing a superpower hobbled. By the end, initial schadenfreude had given way to the type of unashamed emotionality that Gibbon had himself lifted from the great historical writers of the Ancient World. “It’s the end of the world as we know it” emoted Wilson, as slo-mo montages of Iker Casillas’ tear-stained eyes and Vicente Del Bosque fidgeting uncomfortably on the bench looped on the screen.

Playing up to the emotional aspect of such a result is as understandable as it is ubiquitous. From King Lear to The Sopranos, Oedipus Rex to Citizen Kane, the theme of personal decline and fall has been a well-worn narrative construct throughout history. Superimpose this on to a collective entity – be it politico-military monolith or generation-defining sporting colossus – and the effect is increased exponentially. The narrative of supremacy is unavoidable, and so the narrative of decline inescapably seductive, the fall of dominant entities providing a vicarious mirror to the inevitability of our own mortality – the most personal type of decline and fall.

Spain may recover sufficiently to obtain a result against Chile. They may – however improbable it may seem right now – even progress beyond what seems a likely (should they progress at all) Second Round clash with Brazil. Regardless, Friday night’s systematic dismantling of their aura cannot be undone. Every end must have a beginning. This was Spain’s.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.


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