The clouds above this corner of Moscow had opened and mercifully eased some of the soul-sapping atmospheric pressure that had pressed down on the place all afternoon.
All of the psychological pressure though, it remained just where it was — hanging so heavily over those in red. For 120 minutes and more of at-times torturously tedious tournament football, all of the expectation had been on the shoulders of the 11 Spaniards out there in the sweat-soaked green centre of the Luzhniki Stadium.
The grass glistened anew with a fresh coat of summer rain by the time Iago Aspas stepped forward at 7.46pm. Now, almost three hours after this whole thing had begun, all of that pressure and expectation heaped on to his shoulders alone — don’t let this be the end of it.
Aspas is 30 years old and has played just 13 times for his country. It is not upon those kind of shoulders that this kind of contest, and with it an entire generation, should rest. But none of the leaders of this unprecedented era of glory had been able to secure another day for Spain and so it fell to Aspas.
As he prepared to run up to take his country’s fifth penalty kick, he was stopped in his tracks by referee Bjorn Kuipers. Sergio Ramos, his national team captain, had encroached from the halfway line and so Aspas had to step back and rethink the whole situation in his head. With leaders like that, it’s a wonder Spain had even made it to 7.46pm.
This was where it would end though. Igor Akinfeev, Russia’s captain and leader, stepped forward and raised his left leg to stop Aspas’s poor penalty where he’d met it — straight down the middle.
This grand old house of sport shook like it has rarely if ever shook before in any of its iterations. Russian players and coaches and backroom men and women sprinted down to the end where Akinfeev had made his second — and decisive — stop of the shootout.
It was at that same end that earlier, much earlier, during the national anthems that Russian supporters had unfurled a huge banner that read ‘You were born to make the fairytale real’. A pocket of Spanish support stubbornly refused to unfurl one corner that was trying to be rolled over their heads.
Their resistance would prove only fleeting though. Russia were not to be denied. Not on this day. Not against a Spanish side that looked like a cheap impression of the one that had dominated the modern international game. This wasn’t tiki-taka.
From the off, Spain tried to pass the life out of the Luzhniki. Instead, they strangled all the air that remained on a stifling day from their own lungs. Call it death by 1000 passes. Their only goal came off the calf of a Russian who had retired from the international game in March.
And so their World Cup ended as it had begun — with tears. They had rolled down Julen Lopetegui’s cheeks on the opening day of this tournament when the ousted national team manager was unveiled as the new Real Madrid boss around the same hour Russia were kicking us all off with a 5-0 sweeping aside of Saudi Arabia.
By that time Fernando Hierro was already three days into his new role as Spain’s emergency figurehead. In the end he wouldn’t last three weeks.
After a fitful run through the group stages, Hierro made big calls here. With the biggest of all he dropped Andres Iniesta, the master playmaker watching on from the bench in the knockout stages for the first time since 2006 — when another Spanish campaign came a cropper in the last 16.
As it transpired, Iniesta would see plenty of the contest as Russia pushed Spain for an extra half hour before finally shoving them off the edge. It was 1-1 by the time the 35-year-old entered shortly after the hour mark, coming in for David Silva when Hierro could have been justified in calling anyone ashore so poor were his side.
It hadn’t been so early on as the 2010 champions had looked a class apart and took a lead when 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich was too caught up in suplexing Ramos to the surface to notice Marco Asensio’s free-kick spin off the back of his leg and past Akinfeev.
Russia looked ready to roll over but instead Spain instead spun themselves in circles. Where the 2008-2012 generation passed pretty passes that turned punishing in an instant, this was all perfunctory. Passing for passing sake.
Russia sensed they could be in the game and were when Gerard Pique’s woeful World Cup continued as he conceded a needless handball shortly before the break. The tireless totem Artem Dzyuba tucked it away.
Fully 79 of the 120 minutes remained but Spain could have been here all night and wouldn’t have pierced through, Asensio and Isco and Silva and Koke and Sergio Busquets going from side to side but in the end nowhere. So the contest went to spot-kicks down that same end where Russians had been asked to make a fairytale real.
So resolute and assured in normal and extra-time, they were just the same from the spot, Ignashevich and the terrific Aleksandr Golovin among four Russians who past David De Gea. Akinfeev saved from Koke and then Aspas missed the last kick of the contest.
One fairytale fulfilled. And with it, a nightmare ended.
De Gea 6; Nacho 5 (Carvajal 70 5), Pique 5, Ramos 6, Alba 6; Koke 5, Busquets 5; Silva 4 (Iniesta 67 6), Isco 5, Asensio 5 (Rodrigo 104); Costa 6 (Aspas 80 5).
Akinfeev 8; Fernandes 6, Kutepov 6, Ignashevich 7, Kudriashov 7, Zhirkov 5 (Granat 46 6); Kuziaev 6 (Erokhin 98), Zobnin 5, Samedov 6 (Cheryshev 61 6), Golovin 7; Dzyuba 7 (Smolov 65 5)
Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands)