As Spain were condemned to an embarrassingly early World Cup exit after a 2-0 loss to Chile on Wednesday, thoughts quickly flashed to a concern Vicente del Bosque had harboured about his side all the way back in November.
During a training session in La Roja's trip to Africa, the manager openly questioned the commitment and hunger of his decorated squad, according to Guillem Balague in The Telegraph. Del Bosque, it was suggested, went as far as to identify the young Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke as the only member of the world champions possessing the right attitude and desire to win.
Del Bosque, no doubt, will reflect on that day when he sits down with a glass of Rioja to examine how Spain's 2014 World Cup charge imploded. Hunger—or a lack thereof—may well form the basis of his conclusion.
In truth, it's natural and to be expected.
With few exceptions, successful athletes in every sport, every country, battle with the mind as much as the body after years of sustained excellence. Victory simply becomes less satisfying when it's the norm, making the process that leads to it more arduous by the day.
Del Bosque saw that in his side months ago. And in the space of six days, the Spaniards have justified his concerns.
The end-of-an-era narrative will now set in, such as it did for France 12 years ago in similar circumstances.
It's unpleasant, but it's impossible to ignore: The end has arrived for this era, for this crop of players.
When the World Cup heads to Russia in 2018, or perhaps even as early as Euro 2016, this generation's cornerstones in Xavi and Iker Casillas won't be present. It was symbolic, therefore, that it was Xavi who was dropped against the Chileans, while it was Casillas who committed the error that led to the decisive second goal.
Endings can be cruel.
But perspective is needed at times like these.
Proclamations of the death of Spanish football would be over zealous, almost foolish. It must be remembered that La Liga remains the strongest domestic league in Europe, having produced the champions of both of the continent's cup competitions in 2013-14. Additionally, the nation's elite clubs in Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to possess some of the finest youth academies in the game.
The sheer quality of players that didn't even take part for the nation in Brazil—talents such as Thiago Alcantara, Ander Iturraspe, Isco, Daniel Carvajal, Alberto Moreno, Asier Illarramendi, Alvaro Morata and Gerard Deulofeu—also suggests that Spanish football isn't going anywhere.
But that's not our focus—not right now, anyway. For this generation has now seen its time pass.
Like Xavi and Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, David Villa and Pepe Reina won't take part in Spain's quest for redemption in four years time. When 2018 arrives, Andres Iniesta will be where Xavi is now, at 34 years of age, while David Silva, Santi Cazorla, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will all be on the wrong side of 30 as well.
Del Bosque is likely to question his own role, too. After all, the 63-year-old is the only man in history with a World Cup title, European Championship title and Champions League title on his CV. What else does he have left to achieve? Although it was the players whose resolve was questioned in November, isn't it possible that the hunger is wearing thin for the manager, too?
For so long, this glittering group of Spaniards have taken all before them. But sport is cyclical in its nature; regeneration and re-invention must occur at some point on the timeline.
That's where Spain find themselves now.
Indeed, suspicions that La Roja had reached such a point had been growing prior to the Spanish even landing in Brazil for the defence of their throne.
Throughout the domestic season, the Barcelona core of the national team had displayed signs of slowing down, as the price of deep runs in multiple competitions year after year was taking a toll on La Blaugrana's stars.
Away from the Catalan giants, both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid—the other clubs to provide the bulk of La Roja's soldiers— endured taxing campaigns, both in La Liga and the Champions League.
Yet, perhaps more tellingly, the on-field essence that one associates with the Spanish team had begun to show signs of vulnerability at the club level throughout Europe.
In Spain itself, Diego Simeone masterminded a title-clinching method for Los Rojiblancos that upset Barcelona, while Real Madrid tore to pieces a Bayern Munich outfit attempting to embody a decidedly Spanish approach under Pep Guardiola in the Champions League.
Even in England—although to a lesser extent—Arsenal's possession-based philosophy was brought to its knees by the quicker, stronger and more athletic teams residing at Anfield and Stamford Bridge.
Methods to counter the sumptuous recipe had been devised. Tinkering and alternatives were necessary.
But this Spanish generation was too far along the line for such adjustments, the approach and mentality simply too ingrained to deviate from.
In that tactical sense, Del Bosque and his trusted players have been woefully exposed in Brazil. But all tactics are irrelevant without an incessant hunger, a burning desire.
When Spain pressed against the Dutch and Chile, they did so without the degree of physical intensity that allows it to be successful. When possession was lost, Spain merely ambled back time and time again. When the rare opportunity to counter-attack presented itself, Spain couldn't muster the energy for the task. When a teammate was left isolated in defence, Spain didn't have the unwavering will to flock to support.
That hunger, that incessant craving to triumph, only has to drop a single percent for it all to unravel. And Del Bosque knew it, highlighting that reality to his players well before this campaign began.
But La Roja's leader had been trying to re-ignite a fire that had lost its fuel source. Slowly, largely unnoticeably, the world's most physically gifted side had grown jaded mentally.
It's when that natural process occurs that eras and dynasties, even the most celebrated of them all, come to an end.
Spain will be back, but the end is where this La Roja generation are now.
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