Paris: Spain can no longer match the standards that won back-to-back European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012, Gerard Pique admitted after his side crashed out of Euro 2016 to Italy.
The 2-0 defeat means that Spain, who also claimed their maiden World Cup in 2010, have now been embarrassed in two consecutive major tournaments. They were dumped out of the 2014 World Cup as holders after just two group matches.
“We have to be realistic, we don’t have the same level as when we were world and European champions,” said Barcelona defender Pique.
“There are youngsters coming through that promise a lot. There are others who have years of experience and we have to continue offering that experience and talent.
“The level isn’t the same. We have to accept it and be critical to get to the World Cup in Russia in good conditions and at a better level.”
However, Pique defended the right of coach Vicente del Bosque to take time to decide his future despite the latest failure.
Del Bosque was in charge for the tournament wins in 2010 and 2012. But the 65-year-old had already resisted calls to resign after the World Cup two years ago.
“He has won the right to decide. He is a very important person for football in this country,” added Pique.
Del Bosque insisted he will speak with the Spanish Football Federation’s president Angel Maria Villar before making his decision.
Yet, the former Real Madrid boss refuted suggestions it was the end of an era for Spanish football.
“It has been and is a great era for Spanish football,” said Del Bosque.
– Jaded -However, a great era at club level has taken its toll on the national team.
Just as two years ago before disappointing in Brazil, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid competed the Champions League final days before the tournament kicked off.
And Italy ran a combined eight kilometres more than a jaded Spain in an energetic display.
“I’m not sure it was tiredness because we tried until the end, but that left them more space on the counter-attack,” added Del Bosque.
“This has always been a technical team rather than a physical team. We came into the competition in good shape, but it is impossible to measure it and demonstrate (tiredness).”
The headline on the digital version of Spanish sports daily Marca disagreed, claiming Italy had “ended a glorious era for Spain and Del Bosque.”
And Pique admitted Spain could have no complaints.
“In the end the best team won. To win, Spain have to play much better than the opponents and today it wasn’t like that.”
The two sides will meet again as early as October in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Italy boss Antonio Conte claimed Spanish football was in “rude health”, but believes the Azzurri will be full of confidence they can claim the only automatic qualifying spot.
“When the draw was made everyone was saying we would have to qualify via the playoff,” said Conte, who will take over at Chelsea at the end of the tournament.
“This is a very important win. These are victories which help to breed self confidence and self-esteem.”