The overriding feeling whilst watching this once great Spain side crumble in front of our eyes was one of sadness, as Chile defeated the current World Champions 2-0 at the Maracana to send them home at the earliest possible stage. After the 3-0 Confederations Cup defeat to Brazil, most assumed Del Bosque’s men would be back with a vengeance. Even after a shocking 5-1 defeat to Holland on Friday night, some thought they would return to give the doubters a slap on the wrist. Yet the comeback never came.
Iker Casillas, a great champion, looked like a man drained of all energy. His superhuman instincts had finally deserted him. Xavi, criticised in many quarters for the defeat to Holland, looked on solemnly from the bench. Both represented everything good about this golden generation. Ultra-talented on the pitch, class acts off it. They were seen as the glue that held the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions together. Both seem unlikely to ever return to the international stage again.
The scars will inevitably take time to heal, but this great side would be wise to look back on the joy they have brought to their country and the world, and the way they have revolutionised the international game. We may not see a team of this calibre again for a long while. Spain died a painful death last night, but they deserve to be remembered properly.
Amongst everything else, it is probably fair to say that many of these Spain players were simply burnt out, too fatigued to perform their tiki-taka game to the highest level. Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos and David Silva often play around 60 games a season for their clubs, and all have regularly featured in the latter stages of competitions for Spain. Diego Costa, straight into the side despite injury hampering him towards the end of the season, couldn’t replicate his stunning form with Atletico Madrid for La Roja.
This wasn’t necessarily the end of a certain type of football. Spain programme their players to play in a certain way, a proven way, and the success of their youth teams suggests that plenty more stars are to shine on the world stage in the years ahead. Koke, who found himself on the bench from the start of both games, has the potential to fill Xavi’s boots. Thiago of Bayern Munich and Isco of Real Madrid are just two examples of young players not in this summer’s final squad, albeit Thiago due to injury. They both possess wonderful technical ability. The next four years will prove whether Spain can continue to play this way with success, not just this tournament. New players will be blooded into the fold, and perhaps in hindsight should have been a little earlier.
But despite Spain’s potential to react to such problems, the defeat to Chile felt significant. From the off Jorge Sampaoli’s men looked hungrier, snapping at the heels of their battle-weary opponents. They almost scored inside the opening minute but for the awareness of Alonso, who tracked back to make a vital tackle on Eduardo Vargas. Gonzalo Jara headed the resulting corner inches wide of the post. The warning shots had been fired.
Spain had a chance to take the lead fifteen minutes as Costa was played in a goal, but not for the last time in the evening he delayed his shot a tad too much. Andres Iniesta did manage to retrieve to the ball and cross low back into the box, but Claudio Bravo was quick to deny Alonso.
They were made to pay soon after, as Chile scored a goal that Spain would have been proud of at their very peak. After winning the ball back just inside Spain’s half, Chile were devastatingly clinical. Arturo Vidal found Alexis Sanchez inside, and he found the run of Charles Aranguiz. Spotting Vargas free on the far side of the box, Aranguiz neatly cut the ball back from the striker. Vargas did the rest weaving the ball past Casillas before poking home. Spain exiting the competition did not yet feel altogether real just yet, but it was becoming a distinct possibility.
Spain had a couple of chances to level before the break, Alonso blasted a volley over the bar after good hold up work from Costa, and Costa himself found the side netting after a Silva flick on. Pedro, who was not at his best, signified his frustration by smashing the ball against the advertising hoardings. Alonso gave away another silly foul on the edge of the area. Petulance was creeping in.
Not only did Alonso’s foul portray his frustration, it also put Chile almost out of sight. Sanchez curled in a dipping free-kick, and rather than push it away from danger, Casillas punched the ball right back into the thick of the action. Aranguiz took one touch and then somehow toe poked the ball into the roof of the net, wedging the ball from out of his feet.
Spain’s defence had forged a mean reputation over the years, but this was the seventh goal they had conceded in two games. But the problems didn’t lie at just one end. Iniesta, Spain’s player of the match, found Costa with a lovely through ball but the Chelsea-bound striker pondered over the ball again.
Costa then tried to make amends by giving Busquets the easiest chance of the night at the back post, but the holding midfielder somehow placed his volley wide. Time was ticking away. Costa was jeered off as Torres replaced him, but there was no change in fortunes. Santi Cazorla curled the ball inches wide of the post, and Iniesta was denied by Bravo as Chile tired slightly. On a different night, Spain’s second half endeavour would have been rewarded with a couple of goals. But it was all a little too late. After the final whistle, Alonso admitted it had been hard for Spain to find their hunger. It isn’t something any footballer would gladly admit, but after a trophy-laden spell, Spain’s golden generation simply couldn’t muster up another worthy defence. There was to be no resuscitation.