Spain arrived at the World Cup convinced they were ready to rule world football again but Sunday’s defeat to Russia in the last 16 has set the 2010 champions back a decade and brought an end to a glorious generation.
The idea that Spain, boasting a squad bursting with winners at club and international level, could be sent home by the lowest-ranked team in the tournament would have sounded preposterous just a month ago, but as the minutes ticked by at the Luzhniki stadium it seemed ever more likely.
Despite making an astounding 1,107 total passes, Spain could not break the 1-1 deadlock and their fate was sealed when Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev booted away Iago Aspas’s spotkick to cap a 4-3 shootout win for the hosts.
Perennial underachievers on the international stage, Spain rid themselves of that tag during a glorious cycle between 2008 and 2012 when they won back-to-back European Championships and a first World Cup.
But to the national media, this latest fiasco was all too familiar.
“Spain step back 10 years” said newspaper El Pais, while Marca declared, “Spain return to the past”.
Where Spain go from here is far from clear.
They are without a coach and are soon set to be without many of the players that have been part of the furniture for so long.
Andres Iniesta confirmed his international retirement immediately after the game and Gerard Pique is set to join him. Sergio Ramos and David Silva will be 34 by Euro 2020.
“The end of a generation”, said the cover of newspaper AS.
The decision to dispense with long-time coach Julen Lopetegui days before the World Cup after he failed to tell the federation about his move to Real Madrid after the tournament was inevitably brought up.
While the decision, taken by federation president Luis Rubiales, had the backing of large sections of the media and influential former
players like Xavi Hernandez it unsettled the players who had worked with Lopetegui for two years.
Koke, who also missed in the shootout, said it had been hard to lose him. “We lost our leader,” said the midfielder after the game.
Interim manager Fernando Hierro’s lack of coaching experience was there for all to see when he flapped on the sidelines, throwing on Dani Carvajal and Andres Iniesta after he had dropped them from the starting line-up.
Hierro seemed unsuited to his sudden transformation from director of football to head coach.
“I arrived wearing a suit, I’ll leave wearing a tracksuit,” the former Real Madrid defender said two weeks ago.
He did not expect to be leaving Russia so soon but given the turmoil that enveloped Spain’s campaign with the sacking of the man that got them there, no one could really have been surprised by their early exit.