Soviet Union, Rome, Constantinople, the French Monarchy, Ming Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire. These are just some of the empires that have fallen in civilization’s past. Empires with long lineage, and history of momentous achievements made. You can now add Spain’s national side to that list, who with their 2-0 defeat to Chile join Italy and France as previous title holders to bow out in the group stage. There wasn’t the key injury like France had in 2002 with a hobbled Zidane. There wasn’t the embarrassment of losing to football “minnows” that Italy had in South Africa.
No this was just simply a team that as currently constructed had reached its expiration date. Xavi was no longer the Xavi Hernandez that is arguably the greatest player Spain’s ever produced. Diego Costa had his fitness issues and was the new guy. Iniesta looked like a man trying to cling onto a sinking boat, with his passes lacking the accuracy it usually has. Casillas played the goalkeeper position as well as one could if you replaced him with the town drunk. Javi Martinez is not a center back who gamely tried to do so while Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets looked like they aged in dog years.
In hindsight we should’ve seen this coming, but we convinced ourselves of something different in part because they earned the benefit of the doubt. Vincente Del Bosque gave this cast of characters one more shot at making even more history than previously accomplished, trying to becoming the first European team to win a World Cup in South America (bypassing the fact that they already were the first European team to win the World Cup outside of Europe). This cast of characters had the chance of cementing themselves as perhaps the undisputed greatest national side that football has seen, winning four tournaments on the trot. They yearned for the opportunity at staking their claim at immortality. They wanted to prove that the old horses still had one more run left in them, to give this dynasty the proper sending off. In the end that didn’t happen, though the memories of their accomplishments won’t be forgotten.
To understand the brilliance and importance of Spain’s dynasty, one has to remember where international football was recently and the abyss that it created for genuine quality. Pragmatic, defensive football was the name of the game as the Champions League and Domestic football usurped the international game for the most attractive football to watch. Teams were for the most part as direct as a straight line, which helped in lower sides being able to stand a chance and cause upsets in knockout stages. Just look at Greece’s win in 2004, a victory that ironically enough has sent their nation behind versus the rest of the world. The thought of a team dominated by little geniuses was dumbfounding, and yet there were Spain to buck the trend. The thought of winning a tournament without a striker and resorting to a false nine was preposterous, and yet there were Spain again to make everyone else fools.
They introduced a inimitable style of play, “Tiki Taka” to football’s conscious, borrowing parts of Holland’s “Total Football” and sublimating it to their DNA. They would kill counter attacks with the flick of the switch. They made teams look silly with their insistence of possession, and their attacking midfielders invading space and making runs that others wouldn’t dream of. Just blink and you would miss Xavi picking out a pass to Fernando Torres/David Villa or David Silva making a run from the left hand side and Iniesta finding him on the go or Busquets tactically take out the opponents’ most lethal threat just by positioning alone. Some may call it boring, yearning for more emotion and more reliance on the long ball. Others would call it riveting, marvelling at how unified and stable one side could be. They were the truisms of the best defense being a good offense. They were tactically astute and malleable, as evidence by winning a tournament without the use of a striker. Their performance versus Italy in the final of Euro 2012 was perhaps the embodiment of Tiki Taka and maybe their defining moment of the past six years.
It’s important to note though that despite their elimination from Brazil 2014, the future of Spanish football is very bright, about as bright as one could hope for after being eliminated in the group stage. This is the same country that won the UEFA U-21’s in both 2011 and 2013 with players such as Thiago, De Gea, Isco, Morata, Jese Rodriguez, Koke, and Daniel Carvajal. The pipeline is stacked with wonderful talent and though it’s very unlikely to see the next generation achieve the same feats that their predecessors did, they should more than hold their own in the years to come and perhaps contend for a couple of European or even World Cup titles.
But this isn’t about looking to the future or analyzing the failures of this iteration. It’s about celebrating the dynasty and what they brought to football. They rank alongside Brazil from 1958-70 as the greatest national side to grace the pitch, and some may argue they’re better than that Brazil generation. Two European titles (2008, 2012), a World Cup title (2010) and countless memories left by a team who brought a new meaning to attractive football. Their future is bright but it’s very doubtful they leave the same mark that they did from 2008-14. Funny, It seems like just yesterday that Spain were the loveable chokers who were destined to disappoint. Then 2008 happened, then 2010, and then 2012. Within that time frame they sparked a revolution, one involving tactical brilliance and team unity that’s being felt by team’s currently (look no forward to Germany’s use of a False nine or even Chile’s pressing ideologies). We were all witnesses to greatness personified, something international football so desperately needed.