By JOHN LEICESTER
RIO DE JANEIRO — The king is dead. The World Cup will have a new champion.
And the Netherlands look increasingly like credible pretenders for that newly vacated crown.
Just like France in 2002 and Italy in 2010, defending champion Spain is going home tail between its legs.
Chile delivered the mortal blow to an uninterrupted 6-year era of dominance for Spain, the European and world champions whose dazzling footballers ran out of puff in Brazil. They were made to look vulnerable last week in losing 5-1 to the Netherlands and then simply plain ordinary in a 2-0 loss to a physical and quick Chilean side.
The Netherlands, 3-2 winners against Australia on Wednesday, and Chile are now both sure to advance to the next knockout round having won their two first matches. They will now play each other Monday to determine which of them tops Group B and avoids a possible encounter with host Brazil in the first knockout game on June 28.
In Wednesday’s evening game, Croatia ensured Cameroon won’t go further, delivering a 4-0 thumping to the African side whose injured star, Samuel Eto’o, didn’t come off the bench.
This is shaping up as another tough World Cup for Africa. Only Ivory Coast has won so far — its opener, 2-1, against Japan. It plays Colombia in Group C today, with the other matches Uruguay vs. England in Group D and Japan vs. Greece in Group C.
With strikers Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic both scoring and midfielder Ivan Perisic getting a goal, too, Croatia presents a tough challenge for Mexico in their last Group A match Monday. Mexico needs at least a draw to guarantee a place in the last 16. In the other Group A match, Brazil should have little difficulty against the feeble Cameroon side that was reduced to 10 men after 40 minutes against Croatia when Alex Song was shown red.
At the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, fevered Chile fans yelling “It’s over! It’s over!” taunted Spanish supporters, some of them in tears, bitterly contemplating the end of an era for one of football’s greatest ever teams. Its success — back-to-back European titles and the World Cup in 2010 — has provided succor in brutal economic times for Spaniards.
“The only happiness we’ve had in recent years has been football,” said Beatriz Corral, who came to Rio from Madrid to cheer for Spain. “Now the crisis is complete. We don’t have bread or the circus.”