James Calder explains how the World Cup winners have benefitted from a change of generation and clever management
Inclusiveness has been a feature of Spain’s World Cup-winning side. While Ángel María Villar, the president of the federation, dedicated the team’s South Africa 2010 success to the “entire Spanish football family”, the players also made a point of celebrating the triumph with the reporters covering their campaign.
Returning to Madrid for a gruelling schedule that included an interminable open-top bus ride through massive crowds, they made sure everyone got a touch of the trophy, from the daughters of Principe Felipe and Princesa Letizia to Alvaro del Bosque, the son of the national coach and a Down’s syndrome sufferer. The scene of him holding the cup aloft to the cheers of the players was perhaps the most touching of an emotional day.
Another one was provided by Pepe Reina and Víctor Valdés as the squad drank in the adulation of the fans from a stage specially erected by the banks of the Manzanares river. Introducing each of the players to huge cheers, the Liverpool keeper invited his Barcelona counterpart to share a big hug with him, telling the crowd: “They said we didn’t get on. We don’t get on? Well, take that!” Valdés’s inclusion in the 23-man squad had been described by a sceptical media as a possible flashpoint, given his supposedly tetchy relationship with Reina and the challenge his presence would pose for Iker Casillas, questioned in some sections of the press after an occasionally slipshod domestic season. Not for the first time in the summer, however, Vicente del Bosque took a difficult decision and was proved right, Valdés’s grinning presence at the Madrid celebrations an indication of his ease at being in the squad.
Spanish World Cup campaigns have not always been synonymous with smiles. Four years ago a clearly displeased Raúl was pictured moping around at a training session the day after Spain’s 4-0 defeat of Ukraine in their opening match, the prelude to his surprise inclusion for the following game against Tunisia. There have been no rumours of internal divisions this time around, although Del Bosque was moved at one stage to describe Cesc Fàbregas as being “a little unruly” due to the amount of time he was spending on the bench. Cajoling the lesser used members of his squad and remaining unflappable as criticism mounted after the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland, Del Bosque has emerged with even greater credit from the tournament than his feted players.
Del Bosque was anxious to preserve the legacy left by his predecessor Luis Aragonés, perhaps the most voluble critic of the Spain side during the opening fortnight. But the national coach silenced the dissenting voices in the press, answering their queries with frankness and good grace, and staying loyal to his footballing principles. He also took risky decisions, introducing Fernando Llorente for a match-turning cameo against Portugal and taking everyone by surprise by naming the relatively inexperienced Pedro for the semi-final with Germany, widely recognised as a decisive factor in the defining win of the campaign. Now lauded as a “spiritual father” and “the greatest coach ever to be born in Spain”, Del Bosque finally has the recompense he deserves but has never sought, his reputation fully restored after his unseemly sacking from Real Madrid by Florentino Pérez in 2003. “This isn’t just about winning,” he said after victory over Holland. “This also has important principles and values for Spain.” Those values have been embodied by his genuinely approachable players, who have drawn praise across the country for their humility and lack of ego, none more so than Andrés Iniesta, hailed in the press as a “genuine footballer”, an “anti-diva” and a throwback to the tattooless heroes of yesteryear.
Adding to the national sense of fulfilment was the fact that victory was achieved despite the crude tactics of the Dutch, roundly vilified by the fans and the media for their aggressive tackling. Referee Howard Webb was widely censured for his performance too, though not by the celebrating players or coaching staff. “Incompetent from head to toe,” was how Pedro Martin of AS described his performance in the final, one of the more polite criticisms levelled at the English official. Intimidatory tactics and hapless refereeing have put paid to several Spanish challenges in the past. But as the new Spain showed in South Africa, this is a markedly different generation, one capable of producing both entertaining and pragmatic football when the occasion demands. The players were roundly criticised before the tournament for negotiating a win bonus of €600,000 (£500,000) per man. Yet even though the economic crisis continues to bite, few people begrudge them their windfall now.
From WSC 282 August 2010