It seemed nothing too out of the ordinary at first. Just over a week ago, during informal conversations with the media, a few Spanish players commented that some cash had vanished from their hotel rooms the night after their opening match of the Confederations Cup in Recife.
But then the journalists asked the Spanish FA and the hotel manager, and surprisingly enough both issued a statement rubbishing the story, while FIFA confirmed it. During the following days no one could get any of the players on the record to talk about it.
On Sunday night, Brazilian site globoesporte.com.br published its take on the subject. Quoting various hotel employees, the article described a night of heavy partying ("Night of Fury," playing with Spain's nickname) which started innocently enough with dinner, live music and samba dancers at the hotel restaurant, and ended up with some of those dancers playing strip poker with a number of players in a conference room, eventually making it to their private rooms. According to the employees, that was when the theft, among conceivably other activities, happened.
While most of the media waited for the Spanish FA to confirm or deny the story, Madrid's newspaper AS decided to devote Monday's cover to the topic, which immediately became the talk of the town, in this case Fortaleza. During his daily news conference, coach Vicente del Bosque looked uncharacteristically distraught. "We're not going to talk about that, it'd only fuel the story," he said. On Monday night, finally one player, Gerard Pique, appeared in a radio show and denied the whole affair: "It's all a lie. Staying in a hotel and being robbed is poor publicity for them. I guess they made all this up to preserve their image."
Whatever happened on that night in Recife, the fact is that ever since del Bosque took over from Luis Aragones, discipline has become a little laxer in the Spanish team. While Spain's former coach limited nights out to a maximum of two per tournament, del Bosque implemented the game-night policy: After a match, players were free to do what they wanted until noon of the following day.
Most players, already married or seriously dating, took advantage of this opportunity to spend the night with their partners. The smaller group of bachelors usually went to a club, got to the VIP section and partied until late, like any other wealthy youngster would do in the same situation. Never before have these players partied at the national team hotel.
The Recife incident, assuming there was ever one, hasn't been the only off-the-pitch topic to unsettle the atmosphere of the Spanish national team. Three days ago, Antonio Vicente, a Spanish journalist working on a book about Vicente del Bosque, unveiled an already suspected and potentially damaging story about Spain's dressing room: In several instances in the past, Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez had argued with the coach and his technical staff, lobbying for Spain to play with only one defensive midfielder (Sergio Busquets), and leave Xabi Alonso on the bench. According to the journalist, Xavi didn't enjoy his own positioning in the team, farther away from the ball and having to run longer distances than he usually does with his club. Unhappy, Xavi had threatened del Bosque with leaving the team after the 2012 Eurocup.
The revelation came from an interview that the aforementioned journalist had done two months earlier with Toni Grande, del Bosque's main assistant, for the book. Vicente picked carefully his time to make the biggest possible news splash. During Sunday's news conference, del Bosque tried to play down the importance of the story: "Every player has his own preferences and some discuss them with the technical staff. When the player is Xavi, a gifted tactical brain, it only makes sense to hear his suggestions. But we explained to him why we thought we needed to stick to our idea and that was that."
The fact that, after Alonso's injury, del Bosque has renounced the second defensive midfielder, something he'd never done before during official tournaments, somehow weakens his explanation.
Both stories illustrate some dangerous dynamics within an otherwise extremely successful group of players. First, a perceptibly growing lack of discipline, that can be felt in the less and less intense dedication to training sessions and the constant disrespect of specific players for the schedule. Those who have seen this team train, eat and travel together since 2008 can indeed tell the difference.
Secondly, a growing control of the team dynamics for Xavi, arguably the most influential and difficult to replace player on the side. His intent to replicate not only Barcelona's structure, but also its lineup on the national team, has generated unrest within the dressing room.
If that wasn't enough, in this tournament del Bosque chose an unprecedented route to motivate his strikers, who now feel unsure of their respective roles on the team, and has started all three goalkeepers in the first three matches, increasing doubts about who will start in the knockout rounds, as Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes compete for the spot.
"Since this trip started we've made every mistake known to man," says a member of the Spanish expedition who works for one of their main sponsors. "The amazing thing is that they keep winning." Let's see for how long.