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Column: Adios Spain, but good years not forgotten

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The most instructive line in the Oscar-winning "Deer Hunter" isn't delivered by Robert De Niro or Christopher Walken's suicidal character Nick but by an oily Frenchman in the embers of Vietnam War-time Saigon who tut-tuts disapprovingly when Nick turns down a glass of champagne.

"Don't say no," he purrs. "When a man say no to champagne, he say no to life." Spain was the champagne of football for the past six years. Its play was effervescent: built on quick passing, light touches and sparkling talents. Like other luxuries, Spain's champagne football couldn't be easily copied. Get the ball, pass the ball, get the ball, pass the ball was drilled into the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas since they were young lads at Barcelona's youth academy.

Without similar production lines of their own, other teams could only marvel enviously as Spain and Pep Guardiola-managed Barcelona vacuumed up every trophy in football with "tiki taka" — the name given to their dizzying pinball-machine style of play.

"We were taught to play triangles and move the ball around," Xavi explained. "Before you get the ball you have to know what you are going to do with it." Yet, with time, people began to say 'no' to champagne. In football, as in life, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. For Spaniards, success in football was a lifeline to cling to as their economy flushed down the drain. But to non-Spaniards, Spanish dominance became tiresome because it was unrelenting.

Opposition coaches slowly began to fathom out how to gum up the Spanish machines. Jose Mourinho showed the way by turning Inter Milan into a turtle, pulling everyone, even striker Samuel Eto'o, back to defend. Inter sank Barcelona, the title holders, in the 2010 Champions League semifinals. Mourinho, accused of being "anti-football," got the last laugh when Inter then beat Bayern Munich in the final.

Keeping a team at the pinnacle of football is like building sandcastles on the beach. Inevitably, the tides of opposition will sweep away all that handiwork. The only question is how long the walls can be shored up before they collapse.

After Spain narrowly survived an anti-football, karate kicking from the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final, triumphing through Iniesta's extra-time winner, Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque responded with tiki taka on steroids. At the 2012 European championships, he started Fabregas, a midfielder by trade, up front instead of a recognized striker for half of Spain's games, including the final against Italy. Like the multi-headed monsters of Greek mythology, danger now came from everywhere across the Spanish front line. The whirly-gig of interchange between Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, David Silva and haring left-back Jordi Alba overwhelmed the Italians.

That 4-0 win was Spanish champagne football at its coolest. Retaining the European title it won in 2008, with the 2010 World Cup sandwiched in between, made Spain the greatest team this century. They won't make it four major titles in a row.

Chile's 2-0 win Wednesday guaranteed Spain won't get out of the group stage. Nostalgia for Spain's high times is one reason it foundered at this World Cup. Del Bosque either did not or would not see what to others was obvious. Asked seven months ago how Spain would fare in Brazil, Raymond Domenech, France's coach at the 2006 and 2010 tournaments, told us: "Players are getting a bit old. It's the end of a cycle. I even see them being knocked out quite quickly."

If anything, that Spain was unable to play like Spain of the past only proved how exceptional its champagne years were. This was more or less the same group of players but a shadow of the old team. In the must-win match against Chile, Spanish attacks were sluggish and formulaic. Chile looked more like Spain than Spain did itself — quick, keeping the ball. Like confetti after a party, Spanish players scattered across the pitch, disorganized, blown about by Chile's surges up field.

So the dynasty ends, as they all do. But as we look forward to a new king, let's not make the mistake of turning our noses up at champagne and forgetting just how good Spain used to be when the bubbles were flowing.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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