SALVADOR, Brazil -- For six years they dazzled and dominated. They made history by winning three major tournaments in a row. They reversed a tide of football history that was heading away from technique and creativity to power and athleticism. And they united -- at least in terms of sport -- a nation frayed by local allegiances, where clubs mattered more than La Roja.
And then Spain were flattened.
If Pablo Picasso had been at the Arena Fonte Nova to offer a visual rendition of the way Vicente del Bosque's troops looked after the 5-1 pounding at the hands of the Netherlands, it would likely not have been too dissimilar to his painting of Guernica.
"This was the most painful defeat of my career," the Spain manager said, stating the obvious, not least because he hasn't had too many. "I find it inexplicable. Initially we found space, we penetrated, with [Andres] Iniesta, [David] Silva and [Diego] Costa. But then everything changed when [Netherlands] scored."
Across the way, Louis van Gaal did not gloat. Why would he? He's been in the game even longer than Del Bosque and he too has been on the receiving end of hidings. He refused to take credit, saying it belonged to the Dutch players and not to his tactics, not even the much discussed switch to a three-man central defence.
In a sense, both are right and both are somewhat wrong. Spain did start better and did create two legitimate chances -- both fluffed by Silva -- plus the penalty that Xabi Alonso dispatched to give them the lead. And while it was dubious and contentious, it was nowhere near as much of a blown call as the ones we've seen in earlier games at this tournament.
In fact, it was more a case of a young, inexperienced defender, Stefan de Vrij, forgetting that most basic of rules: "Don't go to ground too easily. It gives the ref a reason to give a penalty and your opponent a chance to seek contact." Which is what Diego Costa did, lowering his foot onto the 22-year-old. But there was something ephemeral to the early ebb and flow, even as Spain took the lead. Both teams played a high line in an attempt to congest the space, almost daring the other to go long. When teams did it to Spain in the past, the recipe was tiki-taka and then an incisive pass into space.
Yet even early on, it became clear that Del Bosque's defensive bedrock -- Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso shielding Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique -- was overkill, not least because Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were going wide and the Dutch were offering nothing through the middle. An extra passer or runner would have come in more handy than Del Bosque's "double-pivot."
The damage was compounded by Costa continually being serenaded with boos from the Brazilian crowd. He said afterward: "No, it's normal, I expected it. It didn't affect me." You would hope the opposite: that it did affect him, because otherwise it would be hard to accept such an un-Costa-like performance. The opening exchanges were almost a foreshadowing, a sense that the Dutch could well have been 2-0 down, but, equally, had several levels to go to. And Spain, with that setup, on that day, did not.
When the damage came, it came from the air and it came from Daley Blind, the left-back and son of Ajax legend Danny. He may have been reared on short passes and playing through the wingers and all that stuff they teach you at Ajax school, but he also -- with Van Gaal's enlightened permission -- knows how damaging an accurate sudden diagonal over the top can be. More importantly, he knows how to spot and execute that pass.
The first found Van Persie for his aerial heroics, a combination of athleticism and subtlety that left Iker Casillas flat-footed. The second, after half-time, led to Robben gently plucking the ball out of the air, freezing Pique and rifling home.
Two delicious goals from two genuine -- and sometimes temperamental -- virtuosos, and here, by the way, was Van Gaal's little lie (or, if you prefer, excess of modesty). A great manager, who gets his tactics right, puts his difference-makers in positions where they can make a difference and he gets them to buy into what he's trying to do.
Van Persie and Robben were put in just that situation and delivered. Credit to them, credit to their gene pool, credit to their mommies for bringing them into this world and giving us such pearls, but also credit to Van Gaal for putting them there.
The man has plenty of what Vince McMahon might call intestinal fortitude. His tailor-made 5-3-2 (and, as he says, it may well be different against Australia on Wednesday) was designed to take the defensive burden off his two stars and Wesley Sneijder, the third maestro in the Dutch opera.
However, equally, when the Netherlands regained possession, the formation turned into a 3-4-3 or, more accurately, a 3-4-follow-your-instincts-because-you-have-my-trust-and-you-are-experienced-and-the-game-comes-naturally-to-you.
Sneijder advanced and the other two danced across the front line, leaving Spain with no reference points and turning the horrible game Busquets and Alonso were having into a veritable "Dog Day Afternoon."
That's where Spain -- and Del Bosque -- failed to react. And that's where Van Gaal's triumph lies. The rest was more a case of Spain paying for their mistakes. You just know that when Casillas flapped at Sneijder's free kick, allowing De Vrij to make it 3-1, somewhere out there Jose Mourinho smiled and nodded ... and maybe even stroked a fluffy white cat.
(And, yes, there was probably a foul by Van Persie on the play and the goal could have been disallowed, but it's not the sort of thing a keeper of Casillas' experience ought to rely on.)
The fourth, of course, was the Real Madrid goalkeeper miscontrolling a back pass. Stuff like that can happen, though, to be fair, it doesn't happen very often to Casillas. (If you want to find the silver lining, you might say that it's best to have this sort of cataclysm occur in a game that's already lost.)
Finally, the fifth was a classic counter with Robben doing his Roadrunner impression in the open field: a combination of Godzilla, Deion Sanders and Alessandro Nesta would have struggled to deal with it and Ramos certainly wasn't going to (not on this day anyway).
"I am not going to compare it to the Switzerland game," said Del Bosque, referring Spain's 1-0 defeat in their opening game at the 2010 World Cup, "but it is only one match and it is only three points."
He's right and, if it's true that the Spain players had a calm, collected reflection on what went wrong in the dressing room afterward -- Del Bosque is not the hairdryer and broken teacups type -- then they can bounce back. Their manager actually said it was "edifying," which comes from the Latin word to build. Del Bosque needs to put his men together again.
As for Van Gaal, one statistic stands out. The Dutch committed 18 fouls to Spain's five. That's hugely lopsided, particularly for a game that did not see the Spanish with their crazy 65 to 70 percent possession stats (they stopped at 57).
What this suggests was that this was an unusual game in many respects. And that Van Gaal is right to dampen enthusiasm and come up with a different game plan next time around, when he might meet an opponent who isn't so milquetoast in the tackle.