The future is (suddenly) now
Xavi Hernandez watched the curtain fall from a seat on the bench. For the first time in eight years, Spain had been knocked out of a major tournament and there was nothing he could do about it. While his teammates began the lonely walk from the field, watched all the way, cameras clicking, he slipped away quietly, almost invisibly despite that yellow bib. He did not play at Maracana as Spain were defeated 2-0 by Chile, the world champions becoming the first team out of the World Cup.
For the few who resisted the idea, here was more proof that it was indeed the end of an era. Spain were beaten at last, the run halted at three successive tournaments -- a run unmatched by any international team, ever. And many of those players will not be back for revenge. Much of this generation, the best Spain have had, do not have a tournament left in them and certainly not a World Cup. As it turns out, they did not have this tournament in them either.
Xavi's absence was symbolic. He represents Spain's success perhaps more than anyone. He was the man who played and made others play, the man who defended a style and a philosophy that was recognizably Spain's and gave "la seleccion" an identity that broke from the past. Few teams have had an identity so clear. But time waits for no man, not even a man who on the pitch could appear to control time. Dani Alves once claimed "Xavi plays in the future." Not anymore. His future is no longer on this stage.
Spain have more players on 100 caps than any other team at the World Cup. Iker Casillas has 156 caps, Xavi 133, Sergio Ramos 119, Xabi Alonso 113, Fernando Torres 109, Andres Iniesta 99 and David Villa 96. Vicente del Bosque has been coach since the summer of 2008. At the World Cup, only Joachim Loew and Oscar Tabarez have been in charge longer. That speaks of stability and success but also of age and, Xabi Alonso suggested after the game, a certain staleness.
Familiarity might not have brought contempt but it can bring complacency. Sir Alex Ferguson once insisted that no team can last more than four years; football is cyclical, eras end all the time. Maybe the surprise is that Spain lasted as long as they did. Six of the starters here played in the final in Austria six years ago.
Xavi is 34, Casillas, Alonso and Villa are 32, even Torres and Iniesta are 30. Xavi is set to leave for Qatar. Villa is going to the U.S. It is an admission that they can no longer play at a truly competitive level, that the decline has begun, even if they had hoped to arrest its onset until after the World Cup. Defeat to Chile feels like a watershed. If they weren't already thinking of walking away from Spain, too, they must be now.
Alonso and Casillas admitted that they did not know if they would continue with Spain. Even if they choose to carry on, that decision may be taken from them. "There are always changes after a defeat like this," Alonso said. Del Bosque said there were decisions to be made including about his own future. There is time to think, he said, but he knows that for many of his players time is up.
Casillas added, "This group did not deserve for it to end this way." The word is end. It is necessarily the end. It is the end for this generation and the end of a run that will probably never be repeated. In all probability it is the end of a Spain that is so dominant but that is not the same as saying it is the end of Spain or of the football it plays.
Possession football has not been "found out," necessarily, but possession football as played by these Spain players in these circumstances at this stage of their careers, in this emotional and physical state, has been beaten. You could make a case for saying that Spain failed to play their possession football at all in Brazil. Their style of football was not the problem; their failure to produce their style of football was the problem. Xavi, demonstrably not the player he was, arriving in Brazil off the back of arguably the worst season in his career, was sitting on the bench.
But Spain will not go back to being that team from whom no one expects anything. They will be contenders again and often and there is no reason to believe that they will wholly turn their backs on their identity. It will not be exactly the same -- different players will interpret it differently, and no one will play exactly as Xavi did, while evolution is inevitable -- but a certain continuity will surely be detectable.
Spain play this way because Spain have players who play this way and they still will, even with the passing of those who won it all. The choice of style is pragmatic too, for all that it has often been presented in almost moralistic terms. When Spain won the 2008 European championship and then the 2010 World Cup, they did not just change their past, their changed their future too; they had built an identity to embrace, a model to follow. One that suits their players. To play in a radically different way would be suicidal.
There were 16 World Cup winners in Spain's squad. Perhaps that was part of the problem. The hunger had gone, Alonso admitted. Casillas suggested that the commitment was not what it should have been. A generational change will address that to a point. And it can be an evolution, not a revolution. The transition will not be flawless but it need not be something to fear.
Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Diego Costa and Javi Martinez are all 25. Then there is Thiago Alcantara, Koke, Isco and Iker Muniain, all of whom have been European champions with Spain already, at U21 level. Spain were European champions in 2013 and 2011. And there is, as Del Bosque was quick to insist, stability at the Federation too. The conditions are there to "make the right decision," as he put it. But it must be done and it must be done with conviction.
"There is a good generation coming through," Torres said as he left the Maracana. He scored the goal that finally won Spain a major title for the first time in 44 years. Xavi Hernandez provided the pass. It was the start of six years of success. Now, their time has passed.