Maybe Juan Carlos had a premonition. The Spanish king formally abdicated on Wednesday, just a few hours before his soccer team was dethroned as king of the planet. The difference, of course, was that his majesty was handing over his job to son Felipe while the defending World Cup champions were being booted out of the tournament by Chile. In fútbol, the transfer of power is never gracious and orderly.
“This is a great sense of sadness,” midfielder Xabi Alonso mourned after Spain, which hadn’t lost to the Chileans in their 10 previous meetings, was blanked, 2-0, in Rio de Janeiro and eliminated with one group match still to play.
The Spaniards, who’d crafted an unprecedented treble when they won the 2010 Cup (their first) in between two European titles, weren’t the favorites this time. Yet nobody expected that essentially the same group that posted a string of zeros in South Africa four years ago would give up seven goals in two outings this time, starting with the 5-1 loss to the Dutch, who sliced up Spain like so much jamon iberico. “ESTRELLADOS!” (Shattered!) declared Marca, Madrid’s sporting daily after the unfashionably early exit.
“I can only ask fans for forgiveness,” said goalkeeper Iker Casillas, after his companeros became the first defending champion to lose its first two matches at the subsequent Cup. “We did everything we could.”
It was third time in the last four tournaments that the reigning titlist didn’t advance to the second round. In 2002, France was deleted by Denmark in its finale after an opening loss to former colony Senegal. “Who let the frogs out?” tipsy Danes sang in the Seoul streets. Last time it was Italy, drawing with New Zealand before going out to Slovakia.
Vicente del Bosque, Spain’s avuncular manager, had cautioned anyone who expected another coronation south of the equator. “We have to forget the past and not gloat over what we have won in previous years,” he’d said. The problem this time was too much past, too many regulars who’d worn the red jersey too often, too much reliance on the “tiki-taka” precision passing game.
La Roja was like a case of Rioja that had been left too long in the cellar. Most of the men who’d been at the core of their trophy teams like Casillas, Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Ramos, Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta, David Villa — were 30 or older with 100 or more caps. Their players from Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, who met in the European championship final last month, were coming off long and sapping seasons.
After the 3-0 beating the Spaniards took from Brazil in Rio in last summer’s Confederations Cup for the continental champions, it was clear their primacy was near its end. Still, most observers thought they had the requisite skill and the savvy at least to make it out of their group. But the skewering the champs took from the Dutch, their worst Cup loss since 1950, left them staggered.
The Chileans, who’d lost to Spain by a goal at the last Cup and played them even last September in a Geneva friendly, were all over La Roja from the start. “Some say we take a suicidal appoach,” midielder Arturo Vidal observed before the match. It took only 20 minutes for La Roja (South American version) to break their rivals down, working their way through the midfield, then dashing through the defense with Eduardo Vargas deftly changing direction on a sliding Casillas to pop in an easy goal.
Hands on hips, exasperated expressions. So it had been for the Spaniards in their Friday opener, so it was again on Wednesday. When Casillas punched a free kick directly to Charles Aranguiz and had the ball put back past him in the 43d minute, Spain was over and out.
Their gods from 2010 were all too mortal this time. Alonso, who scored his team’s only goal of the tournament on a penalty kick, was Chile’s bobo. He was dispossessed on the first goal, his foul on Alexis Sanchez produced the free kick that set up the second, and he was taken off at halftime. Diego Costa, who’d been hailed as the danger man up front, never showed up. Xavi never got off the bench on Wednesday. And Casillas, who’d had gloves of gold for half a dozen years, looked like he was chasing a greased pig.
“It’s a sad day for all the players.,” said del Bosque, whose squad still has to play the Australians, who pushed the Dutch to the limit on Wednesday. “Time to think about the future.”
That’s what Juan Carlos did when he handed off the crown to his 46-year-old son, not wanting to keep Felipe twiddling his thumbs like a certain English prince. But as long as Spain’s soccer royalty kept winning, it was difficult to move them out of the palace. So the Dutch backed up the van in Rio and the Chileans drove the Xavis and Xabis away. Maybe the Aussies will give them a case of Foster’s for the ride.