Ten years ago Spain were the superior force in global football. World and European champions, they were a side who would go on to defend their title at Euro 2012 as their international dominance reflected, and was built upon, one of the greatest club sides we have ever seen.
But a decade is a long time in football. Those stars of the past are long since retired, and now the Spanish national team is at a crossroads ahead of their final Euro 2020 group game against Slovakia on Wednesday. Two draws against Sweden and Poland have hardly got the pulses racing, and defeat in Seville will see Luis Enrique’s side crash out of the competition in an era during which it is almost impossible for the big teams not to qualify for the knockout stage.
They should still progress and, unless Poland beat Sweden, results elsewhere mean that a draw will be enough for them to secure a place in the last 16. Disciples of Luis Enrique will point to the fact that Portugal won the last edition of this competition having achieved three draws in the group stage, but make no mistake, it would be a huge surprise if Spain went deep into the competition this time around.
La Roja simply do not boast the quality they did 10 years ago and their young players are not of the same ability as those names from the past. Eric Garcia, Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo and Barcelona’s Pedri all have shown promise for their clubs, but how many of those would have been competing for a place, or had the hopes of a nation pinned on their shoulders, in the era of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa?
Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba aside, the international experience this squad has is also questionable. Only Koke and Alba of the current group started their World Cup last-16 match against Russia in 2018, representing a serious turnover of players for a side still struggling to come to terms with the fact they are no longer contenders for the major international trophies.
Spain’s two major clubs are failing. Their frantic power grab as part of the European Super League was a sign of desperation, and one they will not give up without a fight. You can see why. Barcelona are on the brink of financial ruin and Real Madrid are not faring much better. With big-money signings now not viable, the duo are clearly falling behind not only major European clubs but also domestic sides.
When Atletico Madrid won La Liga in 2014 it was because they had overhauled and outbattled two of Europe’s greatest sides over the 38-game league season. Between 2009 and 2019 Barca and Madrid won seven out of 10 Champions League titles and Diego Simeone’s Atletico had beaten both of them to the title in what went down as one of the finest La Liga title wins. His side won the league this year largely because the two big guns are in utter turmoil.
When Luis Enrique didn’t select a single Real Madrid player for his squad this summer, eyebrows were raised. But his options were limited, and picking an injury-riddled 35-year-old Sergio Ramos wouldn’t have solved Spain’s problems. Of the 11 who started the 2010 World Cup final, only Joan Capdevilla and David Villa were not Madrid or Barca players, and the latter would join the Blaugrana that summer. The change is drastic. Los Blancos are no longer a hotbed of Spanish talent, while Barcelona's Spanish conveyor belt has dried up - of their three players selected, two are over 30 and one is a teenager relatively untested at this level.
The era of dominance that began in 2008 coincided with two successful club sides, but as a result Spain’s expectations have completely skyrocketed. Before 2008, they had just one European Championship to their name, won back in 1964, and during the 80s, 90s and the majority of the noughties, they were known as international football’s greatest underachievers. Just like England, you would always hear talk about how ‘this could be the year’ but, like their English counterparts, a Round-of-16 or quarter-final exit was the norm.
It’s perhaps time to revert back to the way we thought about Spain 20 years ago. All top nations experience generations of brilliant players who come through, and then retire, at the same time. Spain’s talented group achieved more than anybody could have believed possible, but they left behind a void that was impossible to fill.
No side since Brazil in 1962 has won back-to-back World Cups, the last five winners have all been different, and Spain themselves are the only team to have ever successfully defended the European Championship. Generations of players come and go, and in Spain’s case they are currently in a footballing recession.
This time around, the first objective will be to get out of their group, which looked like a relatively simple task on paper. Spanish football’s current lull is now reflected in the national team, so a quarter-final appearance must be seen as a success given the current predicament they find themselves in. The glory days are over, and it could be a while until Spain can compete with the world’s elite once more.