In their great years, Spain made winning look easy. It was never easy. Their victories were flowed from an unprecedented intensity and control that intimidated opponents, draining their energy and confidence. How can you beat a team that never lets you have the ball?
You could see that Spain were different this time from the first few minutes of the match against the Netherlands. This looked like a game between two normal teams – end to end, with chances for both sides. Still, when Spain scored a penalty to go 1-0 up, everyone assumed that that they would settle into their rhythm – keep the ball and close the game.
Then, just before half-time, Robin van Persie hit them with the best goal of the
so far. In the last three tournaments, nobody had ever equalised against Spain. What followed was the psychological collapse of an exhausted team that no longer believed it could live up to its own reputation.
The destruction of Spain, following on from the defeats suffered by Barcelona against Bayern Munich and then Bayern Munich against Real Madrid, has led to a debate over the merits of the Spanish tiki-taka style of play.
This way of playing remains the benchmark of excellence in football. Played properly, it's as close to an invincible style that there is in the game. There is no problem with tiki-taka in theory. There is just one problem in practice, which is that no team that didn't include Xavi has ever quite managed to make it work.
Now that his career at the top level has drawn to a close we can look back and say that the stories of Spain and Barcelona were the story of Xavi all along. He was the greatest team player of recent times, because he was the true instigator and orchestrator of a style of teamwork that conquered the world.
Xavi was never big or strong or fast but he was always a fraction of a second quicker to think, decide, control and pass than anybody else on the field. He touched the ball more than anyone else and it would sometimes looked as though he was passing for the sake of it. But there was always method to what he was doing. Each fraction of a second and fraction of a metre he won for his team represented the accumulation of incremental advantage. Over one minute, his influence on the game might have been imperceptible, over 90 minutes it was decisive.
A player whose game is all about marginal superiority, amplified by repetition, cannot afford to lose anything at the margins. Xavi at 97 per cent is just an ordinary good player. It’s not easy, though, to judge these matters with precision. A footballer doesn’t come with an instrument panel that tells you he’s lost a yard. Sometimes a player will acknowledge the decline in himself, but more often he is insisting he is the same as he ever was.
The warning signs were there. Xavi had just had his worst season for Barcelona, and he was left on the bench for the league decider against Atletico Madrid. And yet he had not retired from international football. He plainly felt he still had something to offer.
We can say now that Xavi should not have played in this World Cup but we can only say it because we saw the Netherlands destroy him and his team. Del Bosque could have made the decision before the tournament, he could have announced that Xavi couldn't do it any more, that Spain needed to move on, but then we would only have his word for it. The coach had to choose between ending Xavi's international career, or believing that Spain's greatest-ever footballer had one last great campaign in him.
Xavi had done enough for Spain to deserve the opportunity. The coach chose to believe in him and now we know it was a mistake. But it was a mistake made for the right reasons.
Del Bosque made the decision to leave Xavi out against Chile, but the damage was done. Without the genius leading from the centre, feeding them the ball, buying them time and space, Spanish imperfections came into focus.
Sergio Busquets passes like a machine and improvises like one too. He completed 98 per cent of his passes and didn't threaten Chile with any of them. Xabi Alonso has always been slow but now he looks too slow. And while David Silva was Spain's liveliest player in attack, the only man who looked like he might unlock the Chilean defence, he never actually shot at goal.
Who can argue that Del Bosque should not have picked these players to play against Chile? The only decision that looked a definite mistake before the match had kicked off was the selection of Iker Casillas in goal. The Real Madrid goalkeeper knew he was out of form and he knew that everyone else knew he was out of form. In the end he was culpable for Chile's second goal.
Last month, Casillas described winning “La Decima” with Real Madrid as “more important than the World Cup”. Total humiliation is a new and unpleasant sensation for Casillas, but years from now he might even be glad that he got to know what it felt like. The range of emotional experience is the great consolation of the sportsman’s life. Even when you’re dying, you’re living.