Is There a Way Back for a Forgotten Soccer Star?

Barcelona lost at home. So did Sevilla. Technically, the same thing happened to Atlético Madrid, although home, in this case, looked an awful lot like Bucharest. It was not until Wednesday night — the last chance to avoid an unwanted clean sweep — that a Spanish team managed to win in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Even then, Real Madrid did not exactly cover itself in glory. Deprived of Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema, the Spanish champion looked every inch the faded force. Atalanta had Remo Freuler sent off — a red card probably best described as disputable — early in the first half, and still Real Madrid toiled, held at bay until Ferland Mendy curled home a shot from distance with 82 minutes gone.

Between 2011 and 2017, Spain boasted two Champions League semifinalists every season. La Liga was, by the most readily available gauge, the strongest league in Europe. In 2018 and 2019, the number of semifinalists dropped to one. Last year, it was down to none. Even allowing for Real Madrid’s particular affinity for this competition, Zinedine Zidane’s team is likely to need a favorable quarterfinal draw to improve that record.

Of course, part of that can be explained by the travails of individual clubs: the well-documented demise of Barcelona, the ongoing sense that Madrid, too, has arrived at the end of an era.

But it may run deeper than that: Atlético Madrid has looked imperious domestically but was made to look callow by the fifth-best team in the Premier League. Spanish teams have won seven of the last 11 editions of the Europa League, but the two clubs likely to remain in the competition beyond this week, Granada and Villarreal, do not look a match for the English contingent.

Perhaps that should not be a surprise. For a decade, La Liga exported ideas to the rest of Europe. In recent years, Germany and England have emerged as the engines of the game’s development, the homes of its most sophisticated, cutting-edge thought. Spain, without really noticing, has been left behind, not just economically, but tactically, too.