By Mike Piellucci
A wager: Someone will attempt to explain Spain's titanic collapse away with revisionist history, as though the greatest dynasty in international soccer history was teetering on the brink of ruin all along and we were crazy not to see it coming. It's intellectually lazy and mostly farcical, mind you, often little more beyond the furious scrubbing away of carefully crafted convictions as soon as they are revealed to be antediluvian drivel. But this sort of thing happens in danker corners of sports punditry, and Spain -- preposterously accomplished, although still acclaimed and capable of approximating their best form -- make for a convenient target, as much for the unparalleled heights they ascended to as the depths they eventually plummeted.
In fairness, Spain was vulnerable -- their midfield fulcrums, aging; their center backs, flighty and not especially swift; their keeper and captain, peripheral at the club level; the great hope up front, untested in their setup. Shrewder minds took account of all of this, though, and ultimately arrived at the same conclusion as everyone else, the only one that really made sense: Spain's susceptibilities were still the envy of nearly every other side in the tournament.
There was no imagining this, in other words, no way of knowing that the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments -- the 2008 and 2012 European championships, along with the 2010 World Cup -- would set another benchmark in becoming the first-ever defending World Champion to lose its first two group-stage matches. There was no conceiving that the one-time architects of a world record-tying 35-match undefeated run would help birth another historic streak by joining 2010 Italy as the only pair of defending champions to be bounced in the group stage in the tournament's history. That Italian squad was creaky and ancient, manned by veterans too old to carry the burden of another deep tournament run and young legs too limited to imagine climbing there in the first place. This Spain team was not, with just two players -- Xavi Hernandez and Iker Casillas -- over the age of 32 and a passel of key contributors well within their prime years, the backbone of the 2010 team still rigid and strong. They are stalwarts on European champions Real Madrid and Spanish champions Atletico Madrid and English champions Manchester City and continental powers like Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. They are players who can walk into any side in the World Cup. Now, they, along with the overmatched Socceroos of Australia, are going home at the earliest possible moment.
The easy culprit is the trademark Spanish brand of tiki-taka football, that flamenco dance of possession and quick-trigger passing, and that's viable in theory: Spain held the ball over 55 percent of the time in both of their fixtures so far, with zero goals from open play to show for it. In practice, however, it's far more of an indictment of personnel than ideology, on all of those foreseen cracks in their foundation splintering simultaneously. Aside from the occasional Atleti triumph, Spain's domestic power structure is more concentrated in two teams than any other major league on earth and so it's no coincidence that Spain's rise as the preeminent international powerhouse coincided with Barcelona's as their equivalent in the club game, and with Real Madrid's Casillas asserting himself as the best goalkeeper of his generation alongside Italy's Gianluigi Buffon.
Yet the last three seasons have marked a slow ebb in Barca's dominance, with just one domestic league and cup win after amassing a pair Champions League, a trio of league titles and a domestic cup in the three seasons before. Casillas, meanwhile, has spent a healthy chunk of the last two years on the bench at Madrid, including an unheard of 238-day stretch between starts. The once ubiquitous debates between his superiority versus Buffon's are long gone now, replaced by those concerning whether the most-capped player in Spanish history is even better than his co-netminder at Real, Diego Lopez, who has been called up by the national team once in his entire career.
Over the last week, all of them played down to the lowest-possible expectations. 34-year-old Xavi and 30-year-old Andres Iniesta, the midfield tentacles orchestrating both Spain and Barcelona's triumphs, carried over the form of their worst club season in years into the tournament, while 27-year-old defender Barca Gerard Pique continued his bizarre regression from world-beater to liability on a high backline that demands utmost precision. Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque comes equipped with the loyalty of a Labrador retriever; when he benched Pique and Xavi for the Chile match, it read less like betrayal than a mercy killing. Casillas, still stubbornly preferred over Manchester United's David de Gea, turned in a pair of gaffes that not only qualify as perhaps the worst performances in his career, but double as the rare confluence of a small sample size actually justifying the narrative that a legend's run at the top ended right before our eyes.
The path toward Spain's next era lies past Casillas, past Xavi and, quite possibly, past the 63-year-old Del Bosque, as well. But the guiding philosophy at the core of its play will remain the same and so, too, will many of the protagonists. De Gea will be 27 come Russia, with the youngest Barcelona midfielder, Sergio Busquets, still just 29. That's the same age as Diego Costa, the eagerly anticipated foreign import who flattered to deceive as much from the midfield's slipshod distribution as his own failures; he's still very much the top-class striker he was seven days ago.
Pique and Sergio Ramos, the preferred center back pairing, will be 31 and 32 years old respectively, still young enough to make a difference so long as their on-field play holds up -- or, in Pique's case, reverses course. With only six players over the age of 30, this team was built to last another World Cup cycle. That still rings true, even in light of this catastrophe, and before the integration of future stars like Gerard Deulofeu, Dani Carvajal, Thiago Alcantara and other names we probably aren't aware of, yet.
For now, though, the discussion shifts to Chile, who saw Spain's depth and raised them speed, strength and decisiveness. This is no mere vulture feasting on a corpse, not with Alexis Sanchez -- a Barcelona player -- able to deploy his tireless trickery from the center or the flank, and a pair of legitimate two-way fullbacks in Eugenio Mena and Mauricio Isla, and Arturo Vidal, firmly in the discussion for the world's best all-around midfielder yet still somehow under appreciated for his excellence in every facet of the game. For now, Spain's ouster does nothing in the bigger picture to bloat the number of prohibitive favorites; it remains Brazil, Germany and Argentina, and then everybody else. It would not be a stretch to consider the Chileans to be among that second tier, though, with so much firepower and a clearly defined understanding of who they are and how they play. They were always good enough to withstand this torture chamber of a group; it just figured to be the Dutch, not the Spanish, who fell in their wake.
In the waning minutes of Wednesday's match, Ian Darke wondered aloud if this all portends a return to the pre-2008 Spain, a team so accustomed to playing the luxuriously talented underachiever. But too much has happened for this team to reassume that identity, too many conquests and too many players steeled by white-hot pressure. They have evolved into something else now, even if that something is different from what they were for the last eight years, as well. There is no telling what, exactly, that entails at this juncture. All there is the certainty of there being a turn in the first place, a fork that will begin by taking them away -- from Brazil, and from the ghosts they'll leave behind.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas, based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.