17 May ~ Spain coach Vicente del Bosque doesn't have many tough squad choices to make going into this summer's World Cup. Even casual fans can guess the outline of his ideal team, which includes such outstanding talents as Xavi Hernández, Cesc Fábregas, Fernando Torres and David Villa. Only one decision has threatened to undermine Spain's unity of purpose ahead of a promising summer campaign – who will be called up as third goalkeeper?
Unlike Fabio Capello – who has enough trouble choosing one decent keeper for England – Del Bosque included five goalies in his pre-selection list, released last Monday. Two of them are seen as unmovable mainstays of the national side. Real Madrid's Iker Casillas is the captain and although he hasn't had the best of seasons it would be a surprise if he wasn't Del Bosque's first choice. These past few months haven't been great for Liverpool's Pepe Reina either, but his role as the team's spiritual leader was firmly established during Euro 2008.
That just leaves the third spot to be covered. The three men jockeying for this undesirable position are Víctor Valdés (Barcelona), Diego López (Villareal) and David de Gea (Atlético Madrid). Most contentious is the case of Valdés. Widely considered Spain's most in-form keeper, he is on track to win this year's Zamora Trophy, an award for the La Liga goalkeeper with the lowest goal-to-games ratio. It would be his third prize and make him the first keeper to win it in consecutive years since Valencia's Santiago Cañizares did so in 2001-02. Quite a record for a man without a full international cap.
Barcelona's sports papers have spent the season pushing for their man to be selected, and as the World Cup draws closer the clamour has grown. Meanwhile, the Madrid press have argued that Valdés is unsuited to a bench role. As Alfredo Relaño, editor of daily Madrid sports paper As, put it: "No one can see Valdés as third choice. The third keeper knows he is only going to play if there's a major emergency. The presence of Valdés would create an unhealthy debate."
It's a tricky one for Del Bosque, who has been carrying out a difficult balancing act since taking over from Luís Aragonés in July 2008. On the one hand, he doesn't want to be perceived as too much of a Real Madrid man, although he was with Los Blancos for most of his playing career and coached them from 1999 to 2003. On the other, he has been at pains not to interfere with Spain's 2008 winning formula. Given that the dressing room hierarchy established by Aragonés excluded Valdés, Del Bosque may well decide that one of his other two choices are safer.
Diego López was brought in as third keeper during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. Del Bosque plumped for him instead of Sevilla's Andrés Palop when Spain played in the Confederations Cup last summer. But Villareal haven't had a great season and López isn't among La Liga's top ten keepers with the best goal-to-games ratio.
Perhaps Del Bosque's best bet is dark horse David de Gea. Starting the season as Atlético Madrid's third-choice keeper, the 19-year-old has played an instrumental part in guiding his team to victory in the Europa League and the final of the Spanish Cup. Whoever Del Bosque goes for, the time-honoured coaching cliché applies – it's quite a nice problem to have. Alex Diaz