Saint Petersburg : Spain’s World Cup roller-coaster ride finally ground to a halt on Sunday and the finger-pointing began after their third consecutive failure at a major tournament.
Following humiliation at the hands of the Netherlands in 2014 and a limp defeat to Italy at Euro 2016, this was perhaps the most galling exit of all, given it came at the hands of Russia, ranked 70th in the world, just above Macedonia and El Salvador.
It would be a stretch to say Russia deserved their win, with 26 per cent possession and only six attempts at goal compared with Spain’s 25, but they had a plan, stuck to it, and fought to the bitter end.
A 4-3 victory on penalties, after the sides were locked at 1-1 at the end of extra time, sends the hosts through to their first World Cup quarter-final since 1970.
Spain’s dominance will do nothing to ease the disappointment following what can now be judged as a truly farcical World Cup campaign.
Julen Lopetegui, the coach fired two days before Spain’s opening match, and Luis Rubiales, the Spanish Football Federation president who fired him, will be circled as the key offenders.
But Fernando Hierro, Lopetegui’s replacement, and David de Gea, who endured a torrid tournament in goal, will take their share of the blame too.
It was a pity that the last match of Andres Iniesta, who later confirmed his international retirement, in the end became little more than a footnote.
“What started badly, ended badly,” wrote Marca. “All the problems began with the dismissal of Lopetegui and then continued with a team lacking in form and ideas.”
Rubiales was quick to make clear he felt no remorse for sacking Lopetegui, who was clumsy in the way he handled his pending move to Real Madrid, but seemingly dismissed because of hurt, personal pride.
“Today there is pain, as we have been eliminated,” Rubiales said. “But you can be calm when you know you have acted with responsibility, conviction and values. You cannot later look in hindsight because of a result on the pitch.”