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Spain's golden generation ended against Italy

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Recognizing the demise of one of the finest international sides ever to grace the game.

They've got another couple of weeks to muck about with the trophy, but as of Monday evening it became official. When Euro 2016 ends, Spain, for the first time since 2008, will not be in possession of a major international title.

In some ways this is quite comforting. As any resident of England can tell you, these are turbulent times, and a Spanish international side that actually won trophies was quite a disconcerting thing. Spain's designated role in international tournaments is to turn up with one of the most talented squads in the world, and then inexplicably fall to pieces at the crucial moment. As such, this defeat to Italy and 2014's spectacular implosion against the Netherlands and Chile feel like a return to how things should be.

But hidden inside that return to normality is the demise of one of the most remarkable sides in footballing history. From their victory in the final of Euro 2008, through their triumph in the 2010 World Cup, and on to Euro 2012, Spain simply were international football. They were the team to beat, and they were the team that hardly ever got beaten.

More that they -- along with Barcelona, from whom they drew their spine -- were the team that defined how football was played. Teams tried to emulate them or, more often, teams tried to work out ways to stop them. And that sounds a little overblown, but this is a eulogy, so what we've lost gets to play center stage.

In memoriam, then: Euro 2008. Marcos Senna gives one of the great masterclasses in the art of defensive midfield as Spain -- with the wondrous Xavi at the peak of his powers and Fernando Torres before his hamstrings went -- embrace the principle of possession above all else and Spain stop being "Spain" long enough to win a tournament. Luis Aragones gets much of the credit, as the rest of the world wonders if this strange new idea of footballers passing the ball to one another, a lot, will catch on.

The 2010 World Cup. Aragones is gone, but in comes Vicente del Bosque, his moustache, and his ... well, whatever else he brings. Still not sure. Gone, too, is Senna, but Sergio Busquets is ready to step in and anchor the midfield. He may be quite as good at the tackling and other mucky stuff, but he -- along with the still-magnificent Xavi and the now-equally brilliant Iniesta -- ensures that the Spanish don't lose the ball in the first place, and so never have to do anything so crude.

Some people hail their hypnotic, smothering stylings as the apotheosis of footballing sensuality and beauty. Others find it a little bit dull. Certainly the Dutch take the latter view, as they attempt to kick the Spaniards out of the final. They almost manage it, too, with a little help from an unsighted Howard Webb. But after Arjen Robben bottles his big one-on-one, Andres Iniesta dispatches his, and Spain stamp a star above their badge.

And then 2012. Having had Fernando Torres and David Villa in fine form for the previous tournaments, Spain set out to try and win this one without a striker. Some suspect this to be a parody of their own style, a reflection of the tragic truth that when all other opponents have been defeated, the only thing left to do is to push one's self as far as it will go, and see if it will break.

Others prefer to note that Villa is injured and Torres, though he goes on to score three in the tournament, is a little crocked. Still, they muddle through, leaning ever more heavily on that glorious midfield. And they absolutely shred Italy in the final, which suggests that the "muddled" in the previous sentence was probably a little harsh. Ah well.

It was a run of success that consumed records -- including a 35-match unbeaten run set during the 2009 Confederations Cup -- drew plaudits. Perhaps the cutest was when then-Iraq coach Boris Milutinovic, who described them as playing "happy football," changed utterly the outlook of a nation. Spanish football fans went from pessimists to optimists and the rest of the world came together to ask one simple question. How do you get the ball off these bastards?

It is, perhaps, interesting to note that while Spain were certainly the best team at each of those tournaments, their progress wasn't always a stroll. Their eventual beating at major tournaments has always required exceptional performances -- Italy on Monday, Croatia a few days beforehand, the Netherlands and Chile in 2014 -- but their triumphs, though certainly dominant, also contained moments of extreme danger. The penalty shootouts in 2008 and 2012 to get past Italy and Portugal respectively and, as noted above, Arjen Robben was just one competent finish away from denying them their World Cup.

These, of course, are just the margins on which international tournaments swing; great teams aren't just great, they're also diabolically fortunate. But it's interesting to wonder what might have happened with Spain had, say, Robben not proven uncharacteristically maladroit. Would Vicente del Bosque, who is expected to step down shortly, have been permitted so long to continue down the same road? Or would Spain already be a fresher team?

Robben had his revenge a few years later. If Spain's 5-1 pumping at the hands and feet and flying, dolphin-esque foreheads of the Netherlands ranks among the most peculiar, ridiculous, and downright stupid games of football in elite international history, then the follow-up loss to Chile demonstrated that it wasn't just a one-off. That -- surprise! -- the Spanish hadn't solved football after all.

That if, as an opponent, you could sit deep and stay set, or if you could stifle and disrupt the midfield carousel; if you could then hit hard and quick through the middle when the opportunity came; and, above all, if you can do all that almost perfectly for 90 minutes ... then the Spanish were beatable. Particularly if they didn't have a proper striker hanging about to finish off all the passing.

But if they weren't perfect, they were as close as anybody's ever got, and if watching them implode has been occasionally amusing, that only speaks to how good they were in the first place. More generally -- and with the caveat that such claims are always more nuanced that a simple obituary can hope to express -- we've seen a tactical and technical conversation flourish around their football.

The upsurge in the extreme fetishisation of possession and the ensuing tactical counter-movement has led football to its current state of play. One in which Leicester City can win the Premier League without wanting much of the ball and Barcelona essentially playing ultra-direct football with a terrifying, twisted plait of three inverted, goalscoring wingers. Spain then kick off their last-eight knockout game against Italy by punting the ball at Alvaro Morata's oddly glossy head.

Of the 14 Spaniards that appeared in the final of Euro 2008, four were on the pitch to lose Italy on Monday. Come Russia 2018, Cesc Fabregas will be 31, Sergio Ramos and David Silva will be 32, and Andres Iniesta, the finest, prettiest and most crucial of them all, will be 34. You'd fancy that Ramos will still be there: a player that transforms himself from a lank-haired hot-headed right-back, into a well-groomed elder statesman of central defense has earned himself a certain longevity.

But the other three are creative players with a remarkable amount of football in their legs, and all looked weary as the Italians earned their win. The Spain that played just like Spain, but won, is almost certainly over, and the next Spain is coming. It will be talented. That's never been the issue. But it's falling apart and that needs solving all over again.