If soccer geniuses Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and their Argentine team still have a lot to prove as, respectively, international manager and footballers at this summer’s World Cup, their Spanish equivalents may have reason to feel much more relaxed. Spain are number 1 in the world rankings, and they’re the bookies’ favorites, having won the European Championship in style when it was last held in 2008, and having qualified for this year’s tournament in South Africa even more decisively: 10 wins in 10 qualifying-group games, 28 goals scored, just five goals conceded. Their phase-1 opponents in June are an unimpressive assortment – Chile, Honduras, Switzerland – countries that are happy just to be there.
You wouldn’t blame the Spanish team, though, for feeling haunted by previous World Cups. In the past, and in stereotype, the country has flattered to deceive with flair-filled victories in the early stages, then crashed when the going gets tough. Astonishingly, for a country with its soccer pedigree and financial/on-field domination of club football, Spain’s best World Cup result ever was a lousy fourth place, all the way back in 1950. But there is strong reason to believe that this is a different Spain in 2010.
The reason for Spanish optimism has got to do, of course, with the talent of the country’s top players. But it is also intimately connected with Spanish politics, on and off the playing field. I recently described the passion of the rivalry between top clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the partly political nature of that passion. Real Madrid is the most popular club in Spain and historically by far the most successful – ‘los blancos’, in their all-white uniforms, were smiled upon especially from the 1950s under the Franco dictatorship – but the national team’s recent success has come, in part, by moving out of Real’s shadow.
Regional and club loyalties run high in Spain, not only in Catalonia where FC Barcelona flies the flag, but elsewhere. Athletic Bilbao, the third most successful club in the history of the Spanish league, has a policy of signing only Basque players, from either side of the Spanish-French border. In practice the policy extends to players from elsewhere of Basque descent, or players of other ethnicities who have played at smaller clubs in the Basque country. Notwithstanding a little looseness in the interpretation, it is an extraordinary policy in the era of corporate sport, one sustained by the club’s fan-ownership structure. Basques, Catalans, even Andalusians are often loathe to identify with things ‘Spanish’. Even in the capital, the mostly working-class supporters of Atletico Madrid despise Real Madrid and its alleged establishment connections.
Some fans’ suspicions, sliding into hostility, toward the national team, and, on the other hand, an abiding belief that players from some clubs don’t put in sufficient effort in the national colors, are a constant throughout the world of soccer: ask Glasgow Celtic fans about Scotland, and Scottish fans about Celtic players; similarly Liverpool and England, or Napoli and Italy. Nations, after all, are ‘imagined communities’, and some people’s local or tribal loyalties don’t allow their imaginations to stretch that far. Spain has long been regarded as the ultimate case of fractured identities, and the national team is thought to have suffered as a result.
However, Real Madrid’s free-spending policy of signing the best players from around the world has had, in the last few years, a paradoxically beneficial, liberating effect on the national team. Luis Aragones, the Spanish manager between 2004 and 2008 and himself an Atletico Madrid man (he had been a failed benchwarmer at Real early in his own playing career) could construct a great team with only scattered reference to Real. Current manager Vicente del Bosque has essentially built his own team on the Aragones foundation.
True, the brilliant Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas is in the side, but the key players include three Catalans (defenders Carles Pujol and Gerard Piqué, and midfielder Xavi), the Basque Xabi Alonso (who has joined Real Madrid only in the last year, relatively late in his career) and the Real-hating Liverpool striker Fernando Torres (who grew up at Atletico Madrid) up front.
And the national team’s playing style is enormously influenced by the club football played at Barcelona, based on possession and short passing and sudden bursts into attacking life. While Barcelona’s most famous and staggeringly talented player is the Argentine Messi, the club’s heartbeat is the Catalan Xavi, probably the tidiest and most visionary passer of the ball in world soccer. His constant control of games, often at a slow place, receiving and playing five-yard, safe passes – and often in recent years for club and country with midfield partner Andres Iniesta – is sometimes derided as ‘tippy-tappy’, but it is often devastatingly efficient and effective. With Xavi in charge in the midfield, a team attacks smartly and selectively, after first weaving passing patterns to bewilder the opposition. Xavi’s ubiquity on the ball and his key decision-making role makes him the nearest thing I have seen in many years of watching soccer to an American-football quarterback.
Torres (who will struggle to be fit for the World Cup after knee surgery this week) and David Villa, the men responsible for finishing off those Spanish moves by putting the ball in the net, have at various times each been called the world’s best striker. To have either of these players at your disposal would be the dream of almost any team. To have them both would be the proverbial embarrassment of riches.
And anyone who believes this Spain team, despite its obvious attacking talent, will show the fragility of its predecessors will have to reckon with center-back Carles Puyol, who has a mane of hair like a lion’s and a heart to match. During the recent ‘Clásico’, when Barcelona played at Real Madrid, the game was won by the incisive passing and movement of Xavi and Messi, but the 2-0 victory was defended by Puyol and Piqué, who seemed to repel Madrid’s formidable attackers for fun. Still, the closely fought Spanish league race between Barcelona and Madrid, unlikely to be resolved before the final round of games in mid-May, is a worry for the national team: some players will be mentally and physically exhausted. Barcelona’s flat-footed performance in a 3-1 defeat in the first leg of ther European Champions League semi-final at Inter Milan this week (after travelling overland to avoid the volcano ash that shut down air traffic across Europe) doesn’t bode well.
On the bright side, Barcelona’s elimination from this top European competition (which they won last year) if they can’t overturn the deficit next Wednesday could be a blessing for Spain, who might prefer key players to avoid a tough European final on May 22nd.
Luckily Spain does have a certain amount of youth on its side. At 32, Pujol is the second oldest player in Spain’s likely squad. (Xavi turned 30 in January.) This team should be playing at its peak. And it seems they will have the support of all of Spain: 35 years after Franco, a ‘nation’ united.
And yet…. Despite the short odds, some of us will be genuinely surprised if this extraordinary collection of players can shake off the burden of history and win the World Cup. Assuming they win their first-phase group, they could run up against their neighbours and rivals from Portugal, or the strongest Africans, Ivory Coast – then it might be Italy in the quarter-final, and who knows after that. It’s a soccer truism that the most talented team doesn’t always win the World Cup, and a soccer reality that winners since 1954 have been drawn from a shortlist of only four countries (Brazil, Italy, West Germany, Argentina), plus two one-off host-nation winners (England, France).
Even Argentina’s two victories carry an asterisk: *once at home, once with Maradona. If you stretch back four further tournaments to the first in 1930, you still only add Uruguay to the list. It appears to be very, very hard to win this tournament if, at some deep level in the national psyche, you’re not used to winning it already.
This Spanish team could easily join the Hungarians of the 1950s and the Dutch of the 1970s in the sad ranks of greatest teams never to lift the World Cup.