The angst and schadenfreude will be thick in the air for the next few days. Spain will pick compulsively at the carcass of its World Cup hopes, trying to figure out where it all went so wrong. The deck was always stacked against it: European teams have never had it easy in South America, its stars were aging and some of them like the sublime Xavi Hernandez were suffering from poor form, and the tiki-taka brand of football that had brought La Roja unprecedented success had been deconstructed in the Champions League over the past two years or so. But even so, the ignominy of the quickest World Cup exit by any defending champion will sting. Partisans of the teams steamrolled by La Roja in their six year reign over the world’s most popular sport, on the other hand, will be merciless — and the football fan has an unrivalled capacity for ruthlessness when it comes to putting the boot in. Once the defeat has sunk in, however, a certain melancholy might be the most appropriate response, fan or rival. The end of perhaps the greatest dynasty to ever play the sport has once again shown the sport’s — any sport’s — one constant: entropy.
Starting with its Euro triumph in 2008, Spain has dominated football like no team ever before. By adding the World Cup in 2010 and then the Euro again in 2012 to its tally, it achieved the unprecedented feat of winning three consecutive major international tournaments. In that six-year stretch, it scored 108 goals and conceded only 22. And it did it all playing a brand of football that marked perhaps the most tectonic shift in footballing philosophy since the totaalvoetbal — total football — that came out of the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s. Tiki-taka was about more than maintaining possession; it married ruthlessness with fluidity, showcased technical excellence, demoralised rivals utterly, and above all, was exhilarating to watch.
Inevitably, that was its downfall. Proven success leads to dependence on a particular playing style in any sport, dependence causes stagnation, and that is dangerous. So it proved to be with La Roja. As far back as 2011, Hernandez had said in an interview that even if everything had to change after losing, the philosophy — and the team identity it created — must stay the same. Other teams, meanwhile, were continuing to evolve, creating the counter-punching style that first brought down the clubs playing tiki-taka football — Barcelona and Bayern Munich — and then La Roja itself.
It makes for a familiar story. In the past 15 years alone, the French and Italian teams have suffered far more precipitous declines after their 1998 and 2006 World Cup victories respectively. In tennis, Rafael Nadal has predicted the end of the golden era in which he played while fellow great and arch rival Roger Federer fights to produce the magic that saw him rule the sport for so long. The greatest generation of the Indian cricket team has faded into the sunset. By definition, sporting greatness is finite; it makes champions at the end of their careers, struggling against the inevitable, even more captivating than their younger, all-conquering selves. For every Wimbledon 1980, there is a Bjorn Borg walking off the court and out of the stadium without waiting for the ceremonies. That, perhaps, makes La Roja’s reign all the more captivating.