Spain fall short in a game of fine margins, but the future offers hope
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque says his side were 'timid' after they were beaten 2-0 in the last 16 by Italy at the Stade de France in Paris on Monday.
PARIS -- The answer to what has happened to Spain lies with Xavi Hernandez. And not just his absence from the national team, for that would be awfully simplistic.
Xavi said in more than one interview that "because [Spain] tend to be a small, slight team, we have to be at our absolute utmost, in form, fit and passing well, in order to compete against a series of teams who are bigger, faster and stronger than us."
While Spain ruled, they did so not simply because they were technically exquisite, nor even just because they had a clutch of historically good and inspirational footballers -- think Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Iker Casillas -- but also because they spent the vast majority of the period between 2007-13 training, preparing, thinking and then performing at their absolute maximum.
To paraphrase the now internationally-retired Xavi, the advantage of being better at football and better on the ball than most of their rivals wasn't enough on its own.
We've been witness to an era, ended bluntly by Netherlands in the last World Cup and now Italy at Euro 2016, which deserves to be exalted -- not just in football, but in the great spans of sporting years. It has been about the excellence of a plan which, once at fruition, was exploited to its utmost and whose harvest was men of great talent who also made great professional sacrifices in order to excel.
On Monday night, after they were knocked out of the tournament, I spoke to a few of the Spanish staff and players.
Manager Vicente del Bosque put weight on how recent events prove the level of achievement winning three straight major tournaments was: Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Iniesta, in a different part of the Stade de France, said the same thing in different words.
"We aren't at the level we were at when we won the European championships and the World Cup," Gerard Pique said.
It's not that they think they've been taken for granted, but they want their audience to understand, now, that the margins within which they operate are infinitesimally small.
Two years ago in Brazil, Spain were in control of their opening game and went so close to making it 2-0 against Holland; they couldn't convert, and within a couple of minutes the score was 1-1 and the then-World Cup holders were trooping into the half-time break with a sore jaw that, as the second half proved, was made of glass.
Here in France, they were tied 1-1 with Croatia after 87 minutes. Had the result held then Spain, as group winners, would have headed for Lens and what would surely have proved to be a vastly easier test against Portugal.
That's not rude; that's the evidence of our eyes.
But a surge of blood to the head, notably from the midfield and right-back Juanfran, triggered a system override.
Had they not been caught upfield by Croatia and had David De Gea played in that game like he performed -- imperiously -- against Italy, then there's a decent argument that La Roja would still be in this tournament and headed for a quarterfinal against Poland.
Had they built the wall correctly against Italy, had they converted any of their opportunities against the Italians, then we'd at least have had a different final period of the match, perhaps even penalties.
All that said, Italy were manifestly better, as said every Spain player to whom I spoke or listened.
Antonio Conte's men were surer of their game plan and of themselves, quicker over long and short distances, firmer in their intentions and mentally sharper.
Their win was merited. But this is a mention of margins.
Spain a) gave us an entertaining match, or at least did once they got going and b) had chances to cling on and, who knows, maybe sneak through against the odds.
Perhaps in the old days they'd have done that. But football is healthy and hasn't just sat around and worshiped that dominant era.
Players, scouts, analysts and coaches have devised ways to thwart Spain, to identify what their kryptonite is. And there were a few Italians -- as Giorgio Chiellini notably admitted -- who were of the mindset: "I'll get one over on Spain if it's the last thing I do in my career."
I have no time for those who now, in the pain of defeat and the nastiness of nationalism, attack or belittle del Bosque.
But he's open minded about constructive criticism and, when he looks back on this end-of-era tournament, he'll probably admit three things to himself if not publicly.
First, it was an error to pick the same XI in four straight matches. Not only were his golden XI a little short of edge, sharpness and ruthlessness as a result, but maintaining the same selection became a disincentive to the rest of the squad.
Second, once that "stick with the A-team" policy had been chosen, the speed with which the coach should have realised that this game needed Thiago Alcantara, Pedro and Hector Bellerin wasn't there.
Finally, more broadly, Javi Martinez represents the perfect blend of Spain's golden era and the advantages of their pursuers from a new, up-and-coming group of players.
He has the technique, the mentality, the discipline and the drive for excellence, attributes that have made Spain great. But Bayern Munich's man also has the height, the power, the set-play goal potential and the athleticism that is not commonplace in del Bosque's current squad.
Therefore his absence is a real mystery.
However, as well as what went wrong, it is important to highlight what is still right with Spain.
Although the relevo -- the new generation -- should have been given its head some time ago, it is now time for Bellerin, Martinez, De Gea, Thiago, Alvaro Morata and others to take responsibility.
Some of the greats will remain but there is enough talent coming to be sure that Spain will remain at least competitive and also worth watching.
More, there will be a legacy. Youngsters in our sport, coaches too, will have seen how Spain played from 2007 and want to copy, emulate and supersede that brand of flowing, technical, intelligent, watchable, winning football.
And that is something for which we should all be truly thankful.