RIO DE JANEIRO – They came to say goodbye.
This was not the way anybody would have wanted it to end — with the embarrassment and humbling of a side which has brought so much joy to the world.
“You cannot consider that this generation is finished. On the contrary, we are still alive,” said Xabi Alonso, the Spanish midfielder said before the game.
But Alonso’s words rang hollow — this generation is surely finished. Dumped out of the World Cup after just two group games, Spain’s era is no longer.
Beaten 2-0 by Chile at the Maracana on the same day that King Juan Carlos abdicated his throne and signed it over to Prince Felipe, the nation’s footballers have now relinquished the crown they once wore with distinction.
Those fortunate enough to have a ticket for the dethroning came wearing red — Chilean red.
Even before kick off, there was a sense of something special — a wind of change, a new era about to be ushered in.
For those from South America, this was a moment nobody wanted to miss — including the 85 Chilean fans who were apprehended by military police after entering the stadium’s media center.
While the spine tingling a capella version of the Chilean national anthem galvanized those in white with a call to arms, Spain shrunk away almost apologetically.
It was left to Eduardo Vargas and Charles Arranguiz to dispense the last rites — both men scoring in a high-octane first half.
There was no fightback — no last stand, no heroics. Instead, those who had once thrilled and mezmerized for so long, slowly and silently slipped away into the Rio night.
This was not a mere collapse — this was an implosion of seismic proportions.
Spain left Salvador last Friday, beaten, thrashed and humiliated after being dismantled with ruthless efficiency by a Dutch side set on revenge following its defeat in final four years ago.
It was a defeat which not only brought a shattering halt to the domination it had enjoyed on the international stage — it was a defeat which signaled the end of an era.
For the past six years, this Spanish side has thrilled those who marveled at its tiki-taka passing and ability to make the game look so effortless.
For so long a perennial failure, its victory at the 2008 European Championship finals ushered in a period of almost flawless football.
Victory at the 2010 World Cup was secured courtesy of a win over the Netherlands, while it retained its European crown comfortably two years later.
But the signs of weakness have been growing ever since it was swept aside in last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.
The 3-0 defeat by the host nation in the final shocked not only seasoned observers but also those who had believed Spain’s domination would surely continue.
A year on, and the weaknesses which were so ruthlessly exposed were laid bare for all to see.
After the 5-1 defeat by the Dutch, the Spanish players spoke of how this current generation were not yet finished.
Cesc Fabregas, the Chelsea midfielder, philosophized over how this occasion would mean “life or death” for his side.
But while coach Vicente del Bosque would have hoped to revitalize his team by performing emergency surgery on his ailing players, Chile arrived hoping to inflict the mortal wound.
Where Chile appeared hungry and sprightly, Spain looked slow, cumbersome and leaden footed.
The removal of Xavi, for so long the dominant force of the Spanish midfield, already hinted at the start of something drastic.
Gone too was Gerard Pique, the Barcelona defender, who endured a difficult time against the Dutch — not that he was alone.
While 11 men in red Spanish shirts made the short walk onto the Maracana field, their minds appeared to be clouded, fuzzy, full of the doubt.
No more so than goalkeeper Iker Casillas — the captain, the man who despite having not featured regularly for club side Real Madrid kept his place in the team.
A dismal showing in the previous game had led to calls for him to be replaced — but on form or not, there was nothing he could do about Chile’s opening goal.
Jorge Sampaoli’s side, playing with a joyful and often naïve innocence, roared into action with a thrust which would not look out of place on the dancefloor of a club in Santiago.
With 20 minutes played, Chile’s ability to combine pace and intricacy cut through the Spanish defense and Eduardo Vargas rounded off a wonderful flowing move.
The goal came with a sense of inevitability — Chile, roared on by the majority of the stadium and off the back of a rousing rendition of the national anthem, became rampant.
Where Spain faltered, Chile stood strong. Where Spain was wasteful, Chile cradled possession like a mother holds its small child. Where Spain sporadically threatened, Chile moved to strike down each and every attack.
For a World Cup champion to exit the tournament at the group stage is not unheard of — France were embarrassed in 2002 and Italy barely competed four years ago as it exited with a whimper.
But neither of those teams managed to dominate like this Spanish side.
Perhaps had Spain managed to arrive at the interval just one goal behind it may have been different — but what transpired was nothing short of disastrous.
With three minutes of the half remaining, the much maligned Casillas, the man who lifted the trophy four years ago, all but relinquished his and Spain’s grip on the crown.
Alexis Sanchez’s 20-yard free kick appeared simple enough to save but Casillas contrived to punch the ball straight into the path of Charles Aranguiz, who fired home from close range.
That self-inflicted wound proved fatal — Spain never recovered.
It tried to fight back, Sergei Busquets missed a great opportunity from five-yards and Diego Costa, one of the biggest disappointments of the tournaments, also went close.
But it was more in hope than expectation.
Each and every time Chile moved forward, Spain fell away seemingly unable to cope with the pace of its opponents.
Mauricio Isla should have rubbed salt in Spanish wounds with 20 minutes remaining only to send his effort wide of the post with the goal gaping.
Not that it mattered — the curtain had already been brought down, the mourners had left – -the cortege was already on its way.