Rio de Jeneiro: The chants at the game between Spain and Chile began slowly, first from one side of Estadio do Maracana, then from the other. By the time the final minutes had ticked off the clock Wednesday, tens of thousands of fans had joined in.
"El-im-in-a-do! El-im-in-a-do!" - eliminated - said those fans, who were leaping so wildly in their red shirts that they made the stands look like a supersize swath of roiling scarlet cloth. (Full match report | Match in pics)
But those fans were not wearing the red jerseys of Spain, the defending World Cup champion and two-time European champion. They were wearing the red shirts of Chile, which eliminated Spain from this tournament in the first round, after Spain had played two games. No past World Cup defending champion had been knocked out of the tournament so quickly.
Watching Chile's 2-0 victory unfold was like seeing a prizefighter clobbered in the face again and again, then seeing him fall to the canvas and struggle to rise as the referee counts to 10. There's a sense of pity in seeing a legend fall so unexpectedly, and appear so helpless. (Also read: Spanish players and their excuses for ouster)
It all happened so fast. First came the Spaniards losing to the Netherlands, 5-1, in their opening game. Then came Wednesday's match, in which a death knell clanged for most of the game's 90-plus minutes. (We were inferior, sorry: Coach del Bosque)
Spain missed a few good chances early, but Chile struck first, in the 20th minute, thanks to Xabi Alonso's ill-advised and lazy back pass at midfield that sprang Chile down the right. Eduardo Vargas took a pass from Charles Aranguiz. He then sent the ball flying past goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who was probably pretty sick of seeing the Brazuca - the tournament's official ball has its own name - whiz by him and being unable to even get a hand on it. (In pics: Spanish fans crushed after Wold Cup ouster)
In the 43rd minute, Casillas did get a hand on it: He punched away a shot from the goal, but the ball landed right under Aranguiz's right foot, as if sucked there by a magnet. How fortunate for Chile, which was already feeling pretty confident. Aranguiz rocketed a shot past Casillas again, adding yet another terrifying scene to his World Cup nightmare.
Spain tried, it really tried, to flip the switch against Chile and let its famous, elegantly mechanical style of play take off on autopilot. But its tiki-taka was on display in only fits and starts, as if its batteries were running out.
Every time Spain tried to make its signature short passes, Chile would find a way to disrupt them. Arturo Vidal, the midfielder from Juventus, would appear out of nowhere, snatching the ball and running away with it like a playground bully.
The Chileans were faster and, frankly, seemed more passionate about winning. Spain's coach, Vicente del Bosque, saw that, too.
"I would have never, ever thought that we would leave the tournament after the first round," he said. "We started sluggishly and were not brave enough, really. It's a pity becauseÂ I didn't expect that."
No one expected the Spanish to show up in Brazil looking so tired and slow. Compared with the Chileans, they looked as if they were in slow motion. But when you think about it, was it simply because they didn't have any great soccer left in them?
Seven of Spain's 23 players competed in the all-Spanish Champions League final a few weeks ago. Ten played in the semis. In the longer view, the team has been playing and playing since winning the 2008 European championship, and several of this World Cup team's key players - including Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez - were on that squad.
Xavi, the key figure in their midfield is 34; Casillas is 33; Xabi Alonso is 32. After so many miles on their legs and so much pressure to stay on top, their bodies might have had enough of it. No one ever said it's easy to be the best. Besides, a younger generation is waiting.
Del Bosque did not start Xavi, Gerard Pique; or Fabregas on Wednesday. Xabi Alonso, who had buried his face in his hands after setting up that first goal for Chile, was replaced at halftime by Koke, who is 22. Regarding Spain's future, del Bosque said there would be consequences for a meltdown like this.
Afterward, Casillas said he couldn't explain what happened and apologized to the team's fans for disappointing them.
"They should know that we gave all we had," he said. He added, "This squad didn't deserve to go out like this."
Maybe Spain saw it coming; maybe it didn't. But for every amazing athlete and every great team, there comes an end. Sometimes, it comes slowly, like it did for Michael Jordan when he couldn't dazzle us with his spectacular play as much as before. And sometimes, it comes fast, like one day waking up to a pair of creaky knees that refuse to do anyone's bidding.
Only one thing is certain: Even the best can't avoid the end.
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