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Spain's reign ends with a whimper after six years of dominance

Photo: Frank Augstein/AP

Body language says it all, with a dejected Spanish national team coming to grips with its first elimination from a World Cup or European Championship since 2006.

RIO DE JANEIRO -- To watch the collapse of Spain, eliminated from the World Cup after a 2-0 defeat to Chile, was to be reminded of Hemingway’s comment on bankruptcy. The end came gradually, and then suddenly.

Over the past couple of years, slight signs of vulnerability have appeared, in the 3-0 loss to Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup final and in surprising defeats in friendlies, which perhaps shouldn’t have been blamed as readily as they were on weariness brought on by the Spanish federation’s determination to flog its champions around the world in search of lucre.

Players aged, hunger waned, doubts crept in. Was Iker Casillas quite as good as he had been? Was Xavi, now 34, running out of legs? With teams more comfortable in combating the tiki-taka style, was there need for a more orthodox center forward? What was going on with Gerard Pique’s defending? Vicente del Bosque was gloomy but dignified in defeat. He avoided any sweeping statements about changes that needed to be made, saying merely that his side had been “shy and sluggish” in the first half and praising his players’ response after the break.

“I would like to have some time to think things over,” he said. “We’ve been together 24 or 25 days. We have trained well, we were fit. We didn’t expect that. We will have to take a decision about what is best for Spain and that applies to my management. We were not brave enough maybe.”

But this was about more than one match, more than one week. This was a moment when history caught up with a giant and brought it down. When enough cracks converge, the edifice collapses. There may have been doubts about Spain, but nobody predicted quite this level of capitulation.

HOW IT HAPPENED: Chile 2, Spain 0

Although Spain is the fifth champion to be eliminated in the group stage of the next tournament, and the third in the last four tournaments, it is the first to losing its first two games. That’s often the way it is, though, with the great teams – and amidst the debris of this defeat, it shouldn’t be forgotten just how great this Spain was – when they go, they are shattered.

The reasons for that are many and varied, but in Spain’s case it seemed that it had forgotten how to cope with a game in which it wasn’t in control. Certainly against the Netherlands, having fallen behind and chasing the game recklessly exposed the weakest part of its team – the defense – to the strongest part of the Dutch – the pace of Arjen Robben.

Perhaps also there was a sense that the desire had gone, as there has been at Barcelona this season: having given so much to win so much, is there any energy left to cling on? There are those who will argue that this spells the death of tiki-taka, but that is to oversimplify the issue.

While it probably is the case that tiki-taka has lost its aura, in that even the biggest teams now are prepared to follow the example of Bayern against Barcelona in the Champions League 2013 or Real Madrid against Bayern this season and play on the counterattack against possession-based sides, whereas Manchester United in its two Champions League finals against Barcelona seemed bewildered at its lack of possession, the decline of Spain is more to do with the decline of a generation of players than with the end of a tactical approach.

Spain still had more possession than Chile, as it had had more possession than the Netherlands, but both opponents, but by using a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 were able to flood the areas in which Spain likes to craft its triangles of approach, and by pressing high were able to take advantage of their attacking pace. It’s no coincidence that Chile unsettled Spain more than any other side in South Africa four years ago, but that was a brighter, more energized Spain that was able to respond.

Every doubt about Spain came to reality. After the opening game Pique and Xavi were discarded, and Casillas surely would have been had Spain’s two reserve keepers not been David De Gea, who is injured, and Pepe Reina, who has seemingly been brought because he’s good for the esprit de corps (and, true to type, was the last Spain player to disappear down the tunnel, having consoled each of his team-mates as they passed him).

Casillas was badly at fault for Chile’s second goal, batting Alexis Sanchez’s free kick straight to Charles Araguiz, who gratefully scooped in the rebound. He seemed a little flat-footed for the first as well, as Eduardo Vargas sidestepped him to round off a brilliant team goal. But it wasn’t just Casillas at fault. This was a leaden performance by Spain as a whole.

Diego Costa clumped his one chance into the side netting. Xabi Alonso, whose misplaced backpass began the move that led to Chile’s opener, had what must be his worst ever game in a Spain shirt. Pedro was ineffective. And when Spain needed inspiration from the bench, Del Bosque turned to Fernando Torres, who lolloped around mournfully and ineffectively as he has at Stamford Bridge for the past four years.

There were chances, as there had been against the Netherlands. Who knows how things might have turned out had David Silva converted that 1-on-1 to make it 2-0 in the first half in that game? On Wednesday, Sergio Busquets shinned a sitter wide, and Claudio Bravo, the Chile keeper, made a fine save from Santi Cazorla.

With six minutes remaining there was even an arching shot from Andres Iniesta, one of the few Spanish players almost exempt from blame, that recalled his late winner for Barcelona against Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semifinal. Perhaps, if that had gone in, there would have been an improbable late redemption, but Bravo, diving up and to his left clawed the ball away.

Spain was out and an era had ended.

The end of Spain's reign

On Thursday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated contributor Jeff Bradley and senior writer Richard Deitsch discuss the defending champions not advancing past the group stage of the World Cup.

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