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By ESPN Staff

Tragic Heroes?

Plus ça change, as the French might have said of the Spanish exit from the World Cup, if they hadn't been so busy celebrating their own passage to the quarter-finals. Nice though it was to see Zidane's vindication of pensioners' rights it was equally dispiriting to witness the premature expulsion of youth from the more mature international company into which they appeared to be settling nicely.

But such is Spain's destiny, it would seem. Maybe they were born to fail at this sort of thing, although at least this time they went down with dignity. In fact their brief but often beautiful appearances have ended like no other World Cup campaign in living memory. Where normally the Spanish traipse home with their tails between their legs, ducking the inevitable public and press vilification on arrival at Madrid airport, this time they are more likely to be greeted home as heroes, albeit slightly tragic ones.

'No llores!' (Don´t cry!) screamed the tabloid 'Marca' on Wednesday morning - adding 'Volveremos!' (We'll be back) for good measure. The reference to tears were those of Fabregas as he left the pitch, and the reference to coming back was echoing the potential of a team whose average age is 24, and who should therefore be able to cope better in the future.

In the end, the French proved too canny for the young Spanish whiz-kids, correctly anticipating that they would try to pass them to death and tire them in the process, with the avowed intention of killing them off in the second half.

Ironic then that it was the French who supplied the coup de grace in the game's latter stages, the Spanish having run out of ideas of how to carve out clear-cut chances.

Indeed, the fact that Zidane scored the final killer goal was a delicious irony, and one that the Spanish press good-humouredly acknowledged on the Wednesday morning. The previous day the press had universally picked up on the fact that the game could be Zidane's last, one paper even proclaiming 'Vamos a jubilar a Zidane' (We're going to retire Zidane) - a less ageist headline than it might have at first appeared, since the respect and admiration the Spanish feel for Zidane is beyond dispute.

But in the end, Zidane retired the Spanish, and will now keep the show going for at least one last official game. In the end this acted as a softener for Spain, as a kind of compensation for defeat. No-one resented the fact that Zidane scored the goal, cutting inside a Barcelona player (Puyol) and cracking it past his ex-Madrid colleague Casillas.

Was it the mere innocence of youth that undid Spain in the end? Possibly. There is certainly a case to be made for Spain failing to hold on to the advantage handed to them by the referee. The lead lasted for a mere thirteen minutes, unlucky for some.

The fact that Patrick Viera supplied the pass for Ribery was significant, as was the further fact that the ex-Arsenal man himself scored the second goal. Viera was another player supposedly finished, unable any longer to impose his authority on proceedings - so said the end-of-term report from Italy. But when he was booked in the second half for a petulant foul out of his own scrapbook, it was interesting that it was Fabregas the player that he kicked.

There was a slight grin on the Frenchman's face as he received the card, as if he felt it had been worth it, if for nothing than to remind his down-cheeked successor at Arsenal who was still ruling the roost. Viera allegedly once said to Fabregas on the training ground a few years ago that 'One day you'll be better than me'. The foul was a reminder, perhaps, that the day has not yet quite arrived, for all the plaudits showered on the young Catalan's head this season. 'Fabregas who?' said the grin.

So perhaps 'innocent' has to be the overall verdict on the Spanish in the end. There are sides still in the competition who have played it ugly and won. Spain have played it pretty and lost - when it really counted. The first game against Ukraine (4-0) was like finding the treasure on the island on the first day - the kids couldn't quite believe their luck. From then on, things were bound to get tougher - the Saudi stroll excepted.

Against Ukraine, to borrow from darts parlance, the 4-0 win was like throwing all your triple twenties in the warm-up. With hindsight, it might have been better to have struggled a little in the beginning, then come good. Whatever - Spain are out, and life goes on.

As for the game itself, it was a slight disappointment, spoiled by the whistle-happy Italian referee who acted as though the game were about to blow up at any moment, despite the obvious fact that the 22 players has taken the pitch with the fairest of intentions.

The fouls pulled up by the referee were 51 in total, only one fewer than the record total of 52 in the Argentina v Mexico game, a match that went into extra-time. If your game plan is to play flowing, possession football, it's obvious that a stop-start rhythm imposed by the official is not going to favour your approach.

The main foul that mattered, however, was Puyol's chest push on Henry which led to France's second goal, but the fact that it was really Henry who cleverly executed the foul is unlikely to be added to the catalogue of alleged injustices that the Spanish have claimed to have suffered down the years in World Cup competitions.

Although it was a mistake by the referee, the feeling is that the penalty that Spain were previously awarded was a reasonably generous one, meaning that the swings and roundabouts triumphed in the end.

Spain stayed faithful to their Quixotic selves, therefore, in going out of the competition just as they thought that their star was finally twinkling.

Cervantes' main point in 'Don Quixote', Spain's finest and most famous book, was that the folks that inhabit the country are always one removed from reality, preferring to believe in things that are manifestly untrue than face the fact that the truth can be unpleasant. This would be the reading of the over-hyped reaction to the group stage, an interpretation that the players themselves would be unlikely to share, of course.

But the momentum that gathered in the country was unlike anything that I have seen in the last sixteen years, and it cannot have helped but communicate itself in some way to the squad in Germany, through the press that was gathered, through the fans that hung around the hotels and training sessions, and through the newspapers themselves, eagerly read by players with too much spare time on their hands.

The other reading is that Spain were attacked in the end by their usual stage-fright jitters, and that they failed to perform on the night - demonstrating that lack of cutting-edge that seems to have plagued them down the years. Either that or the more prosaic fact that Aragones' substitutions failed to come off, executed too early in the second half and unbalancing the side too radically.

Raúl was anonymous, but that's often his best trick. Villa was getting no service, but that was because the French were cutting off Alonso's lines of supply and rushing him on the few occasions he had possession. Xavi was off the pace, and so the introduction of the tougher Senna seemed a reasonable idea in the circumstances, as a way of protecting and then freeing Alonso. But within ten minutes France were 2-1 up, and without Xavi to prompt, Spain were anchorless. Joaquín made a go of it on the right, but the French held out quite comfortably in the end.

On a personal note, I felt almost as bad as when England lost to West Germany back in 1970. It was the first time, as a kid, that a football result made me weep into my hot chocolate. 36 years later I found myself in a hotel in Cambrils, in deepest Catalonia. The bar was packed for the 9pm kick off, with the audience 60% Spanish, 38% French and the rest a mixture of neutral Brits and strange landless creatures like myself.

I have to report that the scenes at the end were upsetting, for there is no pain like the pain of watching others celebrate at a distance of five yards, when all one can do is wince, grimace and think 'I must not become aggressive. It is they who shame themselves with their chauvinistic prancing. And anyway, I'm English.'

But I felt for the Spanish, for their dedication to playing it the right way, for their innocent and momentary belief in themselves, and for their polite and quiet resignation at the end - in Cambrils at least.

I can imagine others tossing a bottle or two, or hurling a few insults at the very least - but I saw none of that. The punters filed quietly away, as the French punched the air and ridiculed them. Fair cop, for it's the winners' prerogative, but personally I felt desperate. I would have paid anything to have turned back the clock, and to have lived for just a little bit longer the country's sudden rush of unusual but deep-felt optimism.

It's something I haven't noticed here for a long time. The power of football continues to amaze. When does the new season start?

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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