Saluting Spain's David Villa
David Villa's number was up. Over on the touchline, the board showed a seven. Villa glanced across at it, surprised and saddened, then walked slowly toward the edge of the pitch with his head down, embraced Juan Mata, sat on the bench and began to cry. So, this is the end.
In the buildup to Spain's final game, the focus had been on how it brought a cycle to a close. The end was symbolised above all in the absence of Xavi Hernandez. But Xavi simply sat there in silence and at the full-time whistle headed straight down the tunnel. Afterward, he did not speak. Instead, the lasting image from Spain's World Cup, the image that brought this generation to a close, ended up being Villa. His goal and his tears. The country's greatest striker bid farewell.
Villa left the way he came in: scoring. When he scored with a clever backheel, he kissed his shirt four times, and after he was taken off, the tears flowed on the bench. His goal Monday was his 59th in 97 games for Spain, more than anyone else, and his ninth in 11 World Cup games -- another record. This was the 37th stadium he had scored in, in the same city where Spain had scored their first World Cup goal 64 years earlier.
"He should be very proud," Mata said. "He has marked a generation, and there will not be another player like him." Top scorer at Euro 2008 and top scorer in South Africa in 2010, Villa scored his goals across 43 different matches: His contribution was constant, not coincidental; his statistics not exaggerated by occasional gluts against weak opposition.
Villa scored the late goal that put Spain through the group stage at Euro 2008. Two years later, he got the only goal in the World Cup quarterfinal and last-16 matches, against Portugal and Paraguay, respectively, having previously opened the scoring against Chile and scored twice against Honduras. "We should be very grateful for what he has done for the country," goalkeeper Pepe Reina said after Monday's game in Curitiba.
Villa's Spain career lasted nine years, and he ended just three games short of 100 appearances. It should have been longer. He made his debut in February 2005, but perhaps he should have made his debut sooner, and he certainly should have become a first-choice striker quicker.
As a miner's son from Asturias who came through the youth system at Sporting Gijón and played for Zaragoza and Valencia, the surprise was not that he eventually signed for Barcelona, but that it took so long.
Villa never had the media nor political backing that other players enjoyed; no one campaigned for him, as there was no Villa lobby. It is hard to do justice now to just how big and how difficult a decision it was for Spain manager Luis Aragonés to leave Raul off the national team. The media campaign was often vicious. Raul had been arguably Spain's greatest-ever player; he was the "siete de España." Spain's No. 7. Villa took the shirt from him and, to start with, some seemed to take that as an affront. Soon he made it his own.
When Villa signed for Barcelona, he was told to forget about being top scorer: that was Lionel Messi's job. Together they won the European Cup, scoring a goal each with Pedro in the final at Wembley. A broken leg at the 2012 Club World Cup Championships brought his Barcelona career nearer to an end and prevented him from playing for Spain at Euro 2012. He moved to Atletico Madrid, scored 15 goals in all competitions, won the league and reached another European Cup final, but he knew that things were no longer the same, so he decided to head to the U.S. at age 32.
His inclusion in the Spain squad this summer had been a surprise for some; to those who watched him train in Curitiba, his exclusion from the first two games also surprised. He had been sharp in training, the intelligence, movement and finishing impressive. In the end, he had to wait until the final game, with Spain already out. Manager Vicente del Bosque admitted that he wanted to use the final game to ensure that every member of the squad had the chance to play at the World Cup.
For Spain, the game was an obligation, but for some of their players, it was an opportunity. For Villa, the end came a little too soon. He had marked the occasion with a lovely goal, a moment's rebellion and a reminder of his talent. But there were still 35 minutes left when the board went up, and he wanted to keep playing, to cling to those last moments.
Del Bosque said he hadn't realised that this was Villa's last game. It seemed an odd thing to say for a manager who admitted that he played Andres Iniesta in part because it was his 100th game and that "details" like that matter. Villa had not announced his international retirement, but no one else doubted that this would be his last game.
As the striker admitted, a departure to the U.S., and one that will be preceded by a few months when he will not be competing but merely playing a handful of games in Australia, means that logic suggests he will not be called up again. In his words, it means that in all likelihood, "this is the end."
"If I got called up, I would be delighted to go. I love Spain and always have for as long as I can remember. But you have to be realistic," he said.
"I'll miss him. If no one remedies this, then today was his last game, and I'm pleased he scored a goal, that he was able to leave out the puerta grande [the main gate]," Reina said, borrowing a bullfighting analogy. But the line that stood out had come before that plaza de toros reference: "If no one remedies this"? Would Reina like Villa to continue, then? "If it was up to me, he would continue for sure," the goalkeeper replied.
"I'd play until I was 55," Villa said, smiling sadly.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.