The La Roja, as they are routinely called, became the first team to crash out of Brasil 2014 with two straight losses. Scoring just one goal and conceding 7 against Netherlands and Chile, Spain became the first defending Champions to crash out within two rounds of the Group Stages. Not even Italy were subjected to such a swift end back in 2010 when they performed woefully, and not even France back in 2002 after the Senegal shock.
The difference between the defending Champions back then and now is the aura they carried into the tournaments.
Spain were still a team that had not conceded a goal in 8 games, and though their dominance had dimmed ever so slightly against Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup Final, they were still the best team in the world by a mile. They were consistent, organized and still swore by the Tiki-taka – a mythical brand of football that had put Barcelona on top of the world since 2008. It is no coincidence that Spain mirrored their most-admired Spanish club team, with play makers Xavi and Iniesta pulling strings for both teams, unfailingly and tirelessly, winning them everything there is to win. Barcelona won two Champions League titles in three years, and three La Liga titles to boot. Messi was the star, but the two Spaniards were the heartbeat and soul. The national team is the only team ever to win a Euro, followed by a World Cup, followed by another Euro (2012).
They began under late coach Aragones, who gave them their first silverware after forty years of underperforming back in 2008. Del Bosque took over and established a team that dribbled its way—quietly and gracefully—into record books. They started unbeaten streaks, ended other streaks, went on winning streaks and entered every tournament as overwhelming favorites. Nobody could grudge them their success, especially because La Liga—the premier league where most of their footballers were blooded—was easily the most skilful and dynamic league in the world.
No other football team has come close to such dominance, not even Brazil of the 70s. But every kingdom must see its end, and every era must make way for another. We’re seeing it in tennis (Federer), golf (Woods), F1 (Vettel) and Basketball (Lakers).
Spanish football hasn’t faded yet, evident from this year’s Champions League winners Real Madrid—who willed their way to victory after a decade. But it is German football that has taken Europe by storm, ever so gradually, spreading its wings since 2006—when a young inexperienced team won their way into fans’ hearts at the ’06 World Cup. Generations have led to the next, and though they still finish second best in tournaments, their club teams—especially Bayern Munich—are undisputed kings of Europe. They are a far cry from the miserly, watertight and cold German teams that bored their way into finals decades ago, and play a brand of football that can only be compared to spurts of Dutch Total Football. Moreover, they have somehow avoided playing Spain too much at their peak.
It was frightfully tragic to see Iker Casillas—that indomitable Wall of Spain—looking so fragile and beaten at the end of the Chile game. This was a player fresh from winning a Champions League title, but certainly at the twilight of a long and distinguished career. He isn’t even that old, but winning too much takes its toll—ask Martina Hingis and Monica Seles.
Losing is not a big deal in football, but the manner of losses confounded even the smartest of football experts and pundits. The signs were there in the gradual demise of Barcelona’s free-flowing style after they were mauled by Bayern Munich in the Champions League 7-0 last year, but not many expected the national team to be treated the same way by Netherlands. This was simply against the run of play—a halt in greatness, an abrupt end to an era that provided joy and happiness to millions of sports fans—in a continent that has never been kind to European teams. Only Iniesta stood tall, while comrades like Xavi, Pique and Alonso were destroyed and clueless—players that had to suddenly confront their mortality in a most painful and immediate manner. Like a sword swooping down onto naked necks, just like that, the greatest football team of all time is now a happy memory. A big red star in a sky dotted with brighter, younger and shinier stars.
They will move on. They will rebuild, but it could take years. The golden era has ended, and one hopes that this is the beginning of another. Germany cannot wait any longer. This is their chance. This is their time.