Xavi, Iniesta relinquish the art form of space invaders

Tonight I can write the saddest lines - Pablo Neruda

For a man who turned football into a poem - of rhythm, balance, technique, imagery - here he was, at his last stanza. On the field, Spain played. On the bench, he sat. Symbolically bereft of every idea.

In an interview to Sid Lowe - who brilliantly interprets Spanish football - Xavi once said of his art form: "That's what I do: Look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space."

Yet now, his nation, this game, this Cup had no space for him. Of course, it was the end of Spain.

Sport, like life, is refreshed by beginnings, but for that there must be endings.

There is a wonder to the assembling of the jigsaw puzzle of a champion - idea, nerve, practice - yet a different beauty as it disassembles, as those parts corrode and he struggles to hold them together. In sport, before you go bad, you go slow.

Yet every fading athlete tries. So did Spain. They tried pride, they tried Diego Costa again - who fits in this team like a bouncer in a ballet troupe - they tried the new, Koke, and the old, Torres.

Nothing worked. Not the parts, not the whole. In winning two European titles and a World Cup, they lost one match, now already two. In those 19 matches, they let in a total of six goals. Now in two matches it was seven.

Winning, as Iniesta once told Lowe, takes suffering and perhaps they'd had enough. The elegance of their precision always obscured the sweat of their endeavour. Now a swarming Chile - once colonised by Spain - provided both a lesson in football and in history.

Football without the duet of Xavi, 34, and Iniesta (30, and still a force) will be less musical. In an infantile football world, they were grown-ups. In a game of cheap gamesmanship, they stood above.

In a sport of loud egos, they exemplified dignity. In an activity littered with silly off-field headlines, they made none. In a planet consumed by how your hair looks, their style came from their feet. They played football, not games.

For an Asian, they fascinated, for many sports have grown out of our reach. Tennis is ruled by a top five averaging 186cm. In football, a study in 2011 noted that the average height of a player in Europe was 181.96cm.

Yet there were these two, both 170cm and all midget mayhem, proving that mind beats muscle and providing this reassurance to the physically disadvantaged: There is no single route to greatness, you just have to find your own. It is why in tennis we cheer for the 178cm Kei Nishikori.

Some tired of Spain's obsession with pass and possession and of wins by squeaky margins (their last four wins at the 2010 World Cup were 1-0).

But for me such greatness rarely goes stale, for Xavi, Iniesta, Barcelona, Spain, made football's fraternity think.

Passing, space, time, feel - none of this is new to sport, yet they made a generation look at these ideas again in a sophisticated way.

It is why "era" doesn't fit them and we must look within art for a word for them: They were a school, a movement, a period.

It is enough to leave behind. Now Xavi may find a new sun in Qatar and Iniesta a new partner in Spain. Always, even for them, there are new beginnings.

Tomorrow we will return to Brazil, to the Netherlands, but as Spain exit, they linger in the mind.

As a poet wrote, "Love is so short, forgetting is so long". The lines were written by Neruda.

It just so happens he is Chilean.


This article was first published on June 20, 2014.
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