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Spain lost 3-0 to Morocco on penalties in the World Cup Round of 16 on Tuesday, failing to reach the quarterfinals for the third straight time since winning its last world title in South Africa in 2010.

La Roja also lost in a penalty shootout in the round of 16 four years ago and was eliminated on penalties in the semifinals of last year’s European Championships.
After a strong showing at Euro 2020 and in the Nations League (where they lost to France in the final), Spain had high hopes ahead of the World Cup.

Expectations were raised after a 7-0 win over Costa Rica in the opening match in Qatar, when Spain’s young team managed to bring back the “tiki-taka” style of possession that had led La Roja to victory in the past.

But after struggling to convert possession into goals, Spain’s performances in major tournaments once again ended in disappointment. After a big win over Costa Rica, Spain played a great game against Germany, but conceded a late equalizer to be held to a 1-1 draw. Then, when it needed a draw to win the group stage, it lost 2-1 to Japan.

By finishing second, Spain has clearly taken an easier path, avoiding a meeting with 2018 runners-up Croatia in the round of 16 and a potential subsequent showdown with Brazil and Argentina. Instead, it faces Morocco, one of the surprises of the tournament but one that has never reached the last eight at a World Cup.

Spain controlled the match on Tuesday but struggled to escape a well-organized Moroccan team, which eventually won on penalties after Pablo Sarabia’s penalty hit the post and shots by Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets were parried by goalkeeper Yacine Bunun.

“It’s my responsibility,” said Spain head coach Luis Enrique, who had asked his players to practice 1,000 penalty kicks with their clubs. “I picked the top three penalty kick takers.”

Spain’s only win in five penalty shootouts in the round-of-16 tournament at the 2002 World Cup came against Ireland. In the quarterfinals of that tournament, Spain was eliminated on penalties by co-host South Korea. Spain has won just three of its last 11 World Cup matches since 2010. Who’s out Busquets, the only remaining member of Spain’s World Cup-winning squad, is likely to end his career with the national team, although he has yet to officially announce his decision.

“What matters now is the team, not me,” said the 34-year-old Barcelona midfielder, who made his 17th World Cup appearance on Tuesday and is tied with goalkeeper Iker Casillas and defender Sergio Ramos for the most games with Spain at the tournament.

The future of other veterans on the team is uncertain, including Jordi Alba and Cesar Aspilicueta.

Luis Enrique said one of his regrets in Qatar was not using the 30-year-old Sarabia more often during the tournament.

Sarabia came on as a substitute at the end of overtime and “he immediately created two scoring chances,” Luis Enrique said. “It was my mistake not to use him more. It wasn’t fair.”

Luis Enrique did not say whether he would continue as Spain manager, saying he would “take some time off” and then start working with the Spanish Football Federation to decide his future.

Who is next?

Spain’s future remains bright as it brings to Qatar a talented team that ranks third youngest in the tournament. Among the starters were 18-year-old Gavi and 20-year-old Pedri, both of whom played well despite the team’s elimination. Gavi scored in the opener, becoming the youngest World Cup goalscorer since Pele in 1958.

Other youngsters who could become regulars for Spain include Ansufati, Alejandro Valverde, Jeremie Pinho, Ferran Torres, Eric Garcia and Nico Williams. What’s next? Spain are not expected to play again until they qualify for Euro 2024 in March, when La Roja will face Norway, Scotland, Georgia and Cyprus. Despite the World Cup disappointment, Spain’s young squad should be expected to make it out of the group and be among the contenders again in 2024, when it will continue its quest to win its first Grand Slam title since Euro 2012. “We’ll pick ourselves up and use it as a learning experience,” Busquets said.

 

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