This may be the end of the greatest international team football has ever seen but rabbil sikdar argues that while mistakes have been made at the 2014 World Cup and 2017 European Championships, their future is still bright
As the rain fell away and the sun began setting at the Stade de France on Monday night, it was tempting to imagine this as the sun setting on Spain.
The cycle of success that began eight years ago against Italy ended here, against Italy too.
The end of an era for this team is now truly here and for Spain the transition to the next one will feel traumatic, maybe terrifying. The fear of slipping back into underachievement is surely there.
This wasn’t the most gifted of Spanish sides, ageing and slow, but it should have had enough quality to beat an Italian side of modest resources.
Instead as Graziano Pelle wheeled away, slamming a volley to finish a counterattack and finish Spain, it was Italy who stormed into the quarter-final to meet Germany.
The game had been presented as a cultural clash; Spain’s artistry against the Italian resilience.
But instead Italy attacked; swift, aggressive and direct. Always finding space, always punishing Spain for being so ponderous on the ball.
Italy didn’t come to sit deep, not at first anyway. They competed for the ball and showed greater ambition with it. By the end, the Spanish were left to rue a missed opportunity, a chance to redeem themselves for what happened in Brazil — dumped out of the World Cup in the group sages — and to brush away the fears.
If this is the end of this particular team, it isn’t still the end of Spain — even though they seemed to accept their doom with dignity. They are too good to fade into obscurity.
But it’s the end of their dominance, of an era of single-minded ruthlessness when teams came and fell before Spain in fear. They’re not fearing Spain any more.
In which case, the world owes this team a lot. It owes the Spanish for refining world football, for elevating technique, ball control, vision, passing and movement to unrivalled importance.
It taught the world the importance of pressing. And in cruel irony, the world have now beaten Spain with that.
What happened in 2014 happened here again. Italy swarmed over Spain, overwhelming them, attacking them with frantic speed and stunning precision.
The midfield was overrun, bypassed with ease. Spain were astonishingly vulnerable without the ball but impotent with it, probing but never penetrating.
Critics will say that this is the death of tiki-taka for sure but that’s a simplistic reduction of what happened. As if Spain alone play the possession game, as if the style and identity alone explain why they lost.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget what a group of relentless competitors this is; every summer calls upon a tournament where they go the distance, players who go all the way with their clubs. Spain arrived looking tired and uncertain. They sought to recover the aura they lost.
Instead they were slow; the fluidity of their passing was there but the intensity was missing. The pressing game had evaporated.
Spain moved the ball slower, rarely opening up the pitch and creating space with the swiftness and precision they once did.
For teams it became easier to defend against. Czech Republic had kept Spain out until the very last minute. Croatia had pressed Spain, made them squirm in discomfort.
Italy pressed and passed Spain out of the game; quicker to the ball, quicker with it, sharp in their collective movement and intelligent in their defending.
In 2014, they lost from a mixture of fatigue and ageing players being used. Xavi and Xabi Alonso no longer controlled the midfield as they once did, beaten by teams feverishly pressing them.
Vicente Del Bosque never learnt his lesson and Spain again lost from a lack of intensity and speed.
Cesc Fabregas and David Silva failed to leave their imprints on this tournament, games passing them by. They lacked the physicality and mobility to deal with opponents.
And yet on the bench sat the likes of Koke and Thiago, as technically gifted but they offer Spain something else — allowing them to compete physically, to be faster.
Where Spain won before, it was partly because they tweaked their team always; Sergio Busquets easing out Marcus Senna, Gerard Pique for Carlos Marchena, Jordi Alba for Joan Capdevilla.
Here though, it was pretty much the same team that crashed and burned in the World Cup. For Del Bosque, continuing with the same midfield that no longer had the intensity to cope damned Spain to an exit. If it could be excused in 2014, it surely cannot here.
The struggle to find a striker who works in the system has remained an issue. Alvaro Morata impressed but didn’t always seem comfortable, often squeezed out of games. Against Italy he was unable to make a mark.
Few have, except David Villa, the legendary striker who understood how important movement was to his role, as well as finishing.
Right now they face a question of bringing in a new era. Xavi should have been phased out after 2012 but was allowed to continue.
To do the same with Andres Iniesta would surely be a mistake. And yet for the third tournament running, he was their best player.
This should have been the tournament when Koke and Thiago took over the Spanish side. Instead they watched.
This is Spain and few boast the young players they do. As one era ends another can begin. Isco didn’t even make the squad but he is talented.
Iker Munain, Oliver Torres, Saul and Munir are gifted players. Others will come about as they surely do with Spain. A gripping economic crisis eating the country’s resources that has gradually affected clubs has not stopped the astonishing production of youth talent.
As Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas and others enter the twilight of their international careers, there are talented stars waiting for their moment to shine.
Maintaining the identity that has won them so much is not an expression of dogmatic foolishness but persisting with the same crop of tired, overused players now emotionally spent is.
Either way, the end for this golden generation has finally reached its wonderful ending. What a story it has been. And a privilege for the rest of us who were able to watch it. It has been unforgettable for all of us.