By Alan Baldwin
CURITIBA, Brazil, June 23 (Reuters) - Spain departed the World Cup stage quietly on Monday, finally winning a game with nothing more than pride at stake after losing two matches that really counted.
Even if their 3-0 victory over a battling but already-eliminated Australia salvaged some dignity, the departing champions always knew they were on a hiding to nothing whatever the outcome.
Win stylishly and there would be few plaudits, only questions about why they had not put up more of a fight when it mattered.
Win narrowly, against opponents ranked 62 places below them, and the questions would keep coming. Defeat did not bear thinking about.
While Monday's three goals boosted their tournament tally to four from three games, they could not hide the fact that ultimately Spain had failed to deliver. It was all too little, too late.
But, in what to the rest of the world was a meaningless match, the three points at least ensured the team would not have to be ushered through an airport side door on the return to Madrid.
"In my opinion we played with dignity, we fought, we worked well apart from the first 15 minutes of the first half. The rest we controlled well," said coach Vicente Del Bosque, whose future remains uncertain.
"We leave relatively happy with today's game, if obviously not the tournament as a whole."
In a game destined to be forgotten far sooner than the shock 5-1 thrashing to the Netherlands and 2-0 defeat to Chile in Spain's opening group games, they did what was expected and avoided finishing last in the group.
But this was not the sort of swashbuckling 6-1 thrashing another doomed Spanish side meted out to Bulgaria when they went out in the group stages of France 1998. It produced the required result without thrilling.
Australia made them sweat in the first half, hustling players off the ball and taking the game to a side whose elegant passing too often lacked a final killer touch.
Fernando Torres, a player who belongs more to the past than the future, found his way onto the scoresheet in the 69th minute and second half substitute Juan Mata rounded off the 3-0 scoreline in the 82nd.
But Monday was less about tactics and more about Spain giving everyone a chance to play in what for some will also be a farewell.
This, too, was an important display of team unity before the rebuilding that must surely follow if Spain are to defend their European crown in France in 2016.
It was a chance to remind the world of the calibre of individual players, to offer a glimpse of the future in the likes of Koke and to pay tribute to the likes of Iniesta, the World Cup winner collecting his 100th cap, and Villa.
"Today is the end of a six year cycle for the team, for six years we have been nearly every month the first in the FIFA rankings," said Del Bosque.
"We have players who are still young, I think we can be very positive about the future. I think we have a good base." (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Justin Palmer)