The moment when Spain's slip became a slide

SINGAPORE - He, the balding man who plays football like a physics professor with a superior understanding of time and space, designs a perfect pass. No one blinks, this is Spain's Andres Iniesta, who turns football into cerebral art.

It is the 42nd minute. Spain are 1-0.

The pass comes to David Silva. His nickname is Merlin. But even wizards can miss a trick. He has only the goalkeeper to beat and as a moment it resembles the 2010 World Cup final, 63rd minute, no score, and Arjen Robben with only goalkeeper Iker Casillas to beat.

Then, Robben's shot hits Casillas' trailing right foot and bounces wide. Now, Silva's chip ricochets off Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen's flailing hands and goes out.

At the 44th minute: A cross from the left and Robin van Persie does what we prefer strikers to do: He dives, legitimately, in the penalty area to score a goal so splendid it makes hair and a planet stand. As Vincent van Gogh, another Dutch artist, once said: "What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?"

It is 1-1. Two minutes, two chances, but only one goal.

Sophocles, the Greek writer of tragedies, once noted that "I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect". But in sport, retrospect, or a contemplation of the past, is fundamental.

Erik Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach, led his team into the film room recently to watch a painful defeat. As critics we look back, too, sifting through games like sporting archaeologists, trying to identify moments when matches swung or empires teetered.

Perhaps for Spain it was here. In these two minutes.

Had Silva scored, it would be 2-0. For Spain, 2-0 could mean momentum and confidence. For the Dutch, 0-2 could be deflating and damaging. We don't know for sure. What we do know is that the threads on which victory hang are thin. Just one point. One putt. One chance.

In their prime, teams have an instinct for these chances and grasp them. Right then, when opportunity knocks and is smoothly taken, they're not certain of the cost of the missed chance. Till it happens. Till Silva misses.

This is the insanity of sport - how so much rests on so little. Roger Federer has two match points in the fifth set against Novak Djokovic in the 2011 US Open semi-final. A final beckons. One "lucky" Serbian forehand, one errant Swiss forehand, and the chance slips away. Federer never makes another US semi-final and only one more Grand Slam final.

At the 2009 PGA Championships, Tiger Woods leads after day three. In 14 Majors, he's never lost when at least sharing the lead on the final day. Now putts slip past, a chance dies and Woods hasn't won a Major since. He's nearly there but never quite, a margin as small but as significant as removing the first two letters from the word "invincible".

Sporting empires rarely end with neat, fond farewells; instead they drag on, searching for one more trophy, till they abruptly meet a moment of excruciating humiliation. Yet as much as we feel sympathy for Spain, this is the wonderful justice of sport: What you do to others will one day be done to you.

Spain, for long an exquisite orchestra, are still great, just less great. Only tiki, not enough taka. But the loss can have two effects: Psychologically devastate a team or swell them with purpose.

The winning of the Cup is distant, first is to win back pride.

Yet something has been lost with this defeat. It's the air a champion team owns. An aura which Spain wore like a stylish cloak, intimidating opponents who played not just them but their reputation. But when aura erodes, as it has, rival teams will see something else. They will see what Spain could not take.

They will see a chance.

This article was first published on June 15, 2014.
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