It’s always easy in hindsight to say the writing was on the wall. However, most found it hard to believe Spain, clearly not as good as they were during their historic run from 2008 to 2014 which included winning the World Cup once and the Euro twice, would be this bad and find themselves out of the 2014 tournament so quickly, after only two matches.
Not just two losses: Spain conceded seven goals and scored only one. Vicente Del Bosque went against the principles of everything that made his side successful since he took over for Luis Aragones. He took a striker who had no idea on how to blend in with the pass-heavy style of Spain, and didn’t make required changes in the lineup and system in order to make Costa more comfortable.
It also didn’t really help that almost every player reached the World Cup in poor form or after a bad season. The list is long: Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Xabi Alonso, the Barcelona midfield trio, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and even Sergio Ramos who has scored some big goals this season but has made plenty of mistakes defensively, which showed in both losses against the Netherlands and Chile.
Spain were always and underachieving team. Plenty of talent and pleasant to look at football, but too naive and weak against the big sides. When they entered the 2008 Euro, they had one Euro from over 40 years ago to be proud of, and nothing from World Cups. Luis Aragones was the head coach of the team that went to Switzerland and Austria in what might be the best international tournament of all time.
Spain played with four in the back (Puyol, Marchena, Ramos, Capdevilla), four in the midfield (Marcos Senna as a DM, Xavi in front of him, Andres Iniesta and David Silva as AMs playing a bit wider) with David Villa and Fernando Torres up front. The results, up to the final, were some breathtaking football with quick passing and movement: A perfect run through the group stages with a 4-1 win over Russia and 2-1 against both Sweden and Greece.
In the quarterfinals they ran into the road block called Italy and had to win on penalty kicks as Iker Casillas rose to the level of national legend, not just one in the eyes of Real Madrid fans. In the semifinals came another incredible performance: The 3-0 win over Russia, setting Spain up with a final against Germany. That final was the foundation for the next two titles, which included football not everyone was always happy seeing.
Aragones used only Fernando Torres up front in the final against Germany, scoring the winning goal during the short period when he was the best forward in the world. David Villa was on the bench, and Spain began the less attractive, more pragmatic version of the Tiki-Taka. Passing into oblivion, putting the opponent to sleep and killing the match, and not the exciting version that won them so many fans in 2008.
The rest? The lineups changed a bit over the next few years. Fernando Torres became a bench player. David Villa was huge in 2010 but didn’t play because of an injury in 2012. Spain introduced Pedro and Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso into the fold, making it a much heavier and difficult to beat midfield. They conceded only two goals en route to winning the 2010 World Cup. They conceded only one in Euro 2012, putting on quite a show against Italy in the final, winning 4-0.
That era is over. Xavi was seen by most as the heart of those teams, and now he’s gone. He began fading away two years ago, but it seems that age and the physical demands of the game have caught up with him. Gerard Pique, because of the Colombian Yoko Ono or not, seems lost without Carles Puyol by his side. Fernando Torres shouldn’t be in a World Cup. Iker Casillas has barely played over the last 18 months.
You go down swinging. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Spain and Del Bosque couldn’t just re-invent themselves and forget everything and everyone that worked so hard to make them the best team in the world over the last six years. They had to give this squad one last try, squeezing the last drops of juice from it. They failed, and will now usher in a new era, with more young players coming in to try and recapture the magic. It won’t be the same. The greatest team in the history of international football isn’t replaced just like that.