Tick-tock, tick-tock, end of tiki-taka?
RIO DE JANEIRO
SPAIN'S long reign as the kings of international football came to a dramatic end at the World Cup with the defending champions sent crashing out after a 2-0 defeat to Chile.
On a day when King Juan Carlos tearfully sealed his abdication after a four-decade reign, Spain's players were booted from their own throne in 90 minutes.
Chile's Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aranguiz administered the killer blows as Spain's trophy-laden era was brought to a shattering end at the Maracana.
"It is a sad day for all of us," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "We are sorry we didn't succeed but now is too early to analyse where we go from here. We were inferior to both Holland and Chile. They got the goals and gave us a mountain to climb."
The early departure of Spain, which also lost 5-1 to Holland, will send shockwaves through football after an unprecedented period of success that saw them win the 2010 World Cup as well as back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012.
It not only spelt the end for one of the greatest national teams, but also threatened the demise of an entire footballing philosophy.
Spain's intricate passing style, dubbed "tiki-taka", swept all before it for the best part of six years, but the sight of Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso being harried out of their stride by Jorge Sampaoli's hard-working Chile felt like the end of an era.
Argentina legend Diego Maradona is among those who believe that tiki-taka has become a tactical relic, but can an approach that has become so widespread be invalidated by the result of just one game?
As Spain midfielder David Silva asked British newspaper The Independent before the tournament: "Why would we change? We've done very well with this style. There's no need to change it."
Where Spain led with tiki-taka, winning Euro 2008, so Barcelona followed, dominating the European club game between 2008 and 2011 under Pep Guardiola, who subsequently installed the same playing philosophy at Bayern Munich.
However, Carlo Ancelotti's counter-attacking Real Madrid got the better of both teams last season, routing Bayern 5-0 in the Champions League semi-finals and edging Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey.
Bayern's loss to Madrid was particularly illustrative, with the Spanish side procuring a 1-0 first-leg lead despite enjoying only 36 per cent of possession.
Indeed, all over Europe, teams have been relinquishing the ball and still enjoying success, with Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea in the vanguard of the counter-punching sides.
Rather than endlessly circulating possession, the counter-punchers rely on breathless industry and water-tight defensive organisation.
It is on their opponents' mistakes that they prey and in the tiki-taka era, with teams falling over themselves to ape the Spanish style by taking more and more risks in possession, it is an increasingly effective approach.
Xavi Hernandez, the faultless passing metronome for Spain and Barcelona who was dropped for the defeat against Chile, typifies tiki-taka more than any other player. And he believes that it will always be a point of reference for teams such as his own where waiting for the opponent to make a mistake is not an option.
"If you go two years without winning, everything has to change. But you change names, not identity," he said in a 2011 interview. "The philosophy can't be lost. Our fans wouldn't understand a team that sat back and played on the break."
Spain may be paying the price for the fatigue and fading motivation of their players after six years of near-constant success, rather than any inherent flaw in their tactical approach.
Tiki-taka's figureheads, such as Xavi and Iniesta, were always destined to topple from the sport's summit at some point, but it may survive their departure.