A whole generation of Spanish children have grown up resolute in the belief that their country is the best at football. Following victories in 2008, 10 and 12, no Spaniard under the age of about 13 knows what it is like to get knocked out of the World Cup or European Championships. It simply hasn’t happened in their living memory.
In the same period El Barça have dominated at club level with Real Madrid following close behind. Add that to the success of Rafa Nadal in tennis, Contador in cycling (until that dodgy Basque steak), Marquez, Lorenzo and Pedrosa on motorbikes, their men’s basketball team led by the hermanos Gasol (unless the Americans make an effort), and Fernando Alonso being widely regarded as the best F1 driver out there, and you start to understand the superiority complex that has been embedded in Spanish youngsters, and indeed the nation as a whole, when it comes to the world of sport.
Over the last nine months or so, however, cracks have started to appear and faith has begun to waver. Barça’s 7-0 humbling by Bayern Munich was the first sign that something was not quite right. Could it be that tiki-taka was not the infallible game winning system they had all been led to believe? Further writing on the wall appeared when Brazil hammered Spain 3-0 in the final of last year’s Confederations Cup – the only trophy missing from La Roja’s cabinet and a tournament that was thus taken very seriously indeed on these shores. This was all the opening the more fatalist-minded needed to spread their belief that the laws of averages alone will conspire against Spain this year: nobody can possibly win consecutive European Championships and consecutive World Cups.
And so 2014 arrived in the midst of a long, cold and wet winter of discontent and, with the World Cup just months away, the average Spaniard had Germany, Brazil and Argentina picked as the favourites to be crowned champions on the 13th of July in Rio de Janeiro. Rather than ready to take on all-comers, every Tomas, Ricardo and Enrique from Galicia to Andalucia was fretting over losing to Holland in the group stage and having to face Brazil in the second round. Confidence in the national team was lower than it had been for years and La Roja and their supporters were in desperate need of a confidence booster.
Wednesday night’s friendly in the Calderón against Italy may just have provided it. On the one hand it can be viewed as a bog standard one nil win in which the Spanish dominated possession but didn’t create enough goal-scoring opportunities. Same old same old if you’re a vaso half empty man. On the other hand, I believe enough can be taken from the exercise to at least sow some seeds of optimism and hope they sprout in time for the Holland clash in Salvador in six weeks.
First off, the debate on the squad is clear evidence of the strength in depth still available to national manager Vicente del Bosque. The Real Madrid and Manchester United number ones didn’t even get a call up for example. Who would England’s fourth and fifth choice keepers be I wonder? Juan Mata didn’t make the squad either, while Xavi Hernandez and Negredo spent the entire night on the bench and the likes of Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Jesus Navas and Santi Cazorla were only good enough for second half substitute appearances.
Of those that did start, there was plenty to cheer. Javi Martinez was excellent in central defence in the absence of Pique. Del Bosque may still favour the Barcelona centre back but at least this will give him the kick up the backside he needs to realise he is not guaranteed a place in the side regardless of form. At right back the young Azpilicueta was a revelation and could be the answer to Spain’s perennial problem position. Arbeloa is referred to as a traffic cone by most here for his lack of technical ability and dynamism and few outside die-hard Madridistas will be sorry if he is not on the plane.
In midfield Pedro and Iniesta were excellent while Silva came on for Cesc in the second half and was a constant menace to the Italians with his energy and ability to beat a man and pick a pass. Meanwhile in centre midfield, Thiago produced perhaps the most interesting performance of the night. The man who left Cataluña when he saw no way past Xavi into the starting 11 at club level continues to rapidly improve and offers something distinct from the Barça legend, yet in the same position.
If del Bosque wants his side to play a slightly more direct style, more Bayern than Barça if you like, then Thiago’s ability to run with the ball to create space for others, rather than weaving intricate triangles which draw teammates towards him, could see the unthinkable happen and the great Xavi Hernandez relegated to the bench. Most will scoff at this suggestion but, unlike England managers, the Spanish tend to pick the correct players for the team rather than simply picking the ‘best’ players. All I will say is that stranger things have happened.
Up front, despite Álvaro Negredo’s 23 goals for Man City this season, it looks like Brazilian Diego Costa will lead the Spanish line in South America. Wednesday night was his debut and, in truth, he played like he’d just arrived in the country that evening. Costa is typically a rambunctious character on the pitch; never far away from any handbags getting swung or insult being hurled. Against Italy, however, he was surprisingly subdued. It was as if he had been warned to be on his best behaviour in his first game wearing the Spanish badge, to keep his head down and stay out of trouble.
If so, it was a rare error from del Bosque as everyone knows Costa needs to be provoked and riled and hate the world to play at his best. Rather than the softly softly approach, Vicente would perhaps have been better to get his number 9 on the war path by leading the chant that echoes around stadiums when DC is away from home: “Costa! Cabrón! No eres español!!” Loosely translated as: “Costa! Asshole! You’re not Spanish!!” In any case, I’m sure the locals will have plenty of choice words to get under the striker’s skin during each 90 minutes in his motherland this summer.
The odds-makers still have Spain firmly installed as fourth favourites to triumph in Brazil, and perhaps rightly so. But cautious optimism is stirring here that seven to one is not a bad price and may be worth a peseta or two. The level of triumphant smugness may not be what it once was, but this is a nation that still refers to its 16th century navy ships, the majority of which sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean while fleeing battle, as the Armada Invencible (Invincible Fleet), so it’ll be a cold day in Marbella before they give up hope altogether. If they manage to top group B in June, don’t be surprised to see them go all the way to the final in the Maracana. And if that happens, don’t rule out another two years’ worth of Spanish niños continuing to grow, blissfully unaware that Spain aren’t actually guaranteed to win every time.