Uncle Vicente's uncertain future

May 19, 2003
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

Italian sides have traditionally been the 'bestias negras' (bogey teams) for both the Spanish national side and its most famous European representatives, but the manner of Juventus' win against Real Madrid in Turin revealed an awful lot about Spain's attitude problem with regard to other footballing cultures.

There was unanimity in the press as to the fact that Juventus deserved to win, but little praise for the fact that Madrid had in fact put out an attacking side. Perhaps it was Hobson's Choice, suggested El País, since without Makelele to cover the creaking defence, why not just go for broke and play to strengths?

This seems a little unfair, because the truth is that it makes little difference to a side like Juventus how the opposition decides to play - because the beauty of Italian football is its hard-headed ability to ignore the virtues and weaknesses of the other lot and just get on with doing what they know best how to do.

Poor Madrid, reduced to shoulder shrugs, hands on hips and collective head-scratching. Even then they could have won it, had Figo put the penalty away, but in the end it was irrelevant. Madrid just looked too knackered, and the consequences of the game appear to be far-reaching.

Certain sections of the press decided to heap the blame for the defeat onto manager Vicente Del Bosque's shoulders, questioning his tactical awareness and some of the features of the line-up. Why play Ronaldo and Raúl, neither firing on all cylinders, when the perfectly healthy duo of Morientes and Portillo were shining their shorts on the bench?

Poor Del Bosque, everybody's favourite uncle, was at last coming under sustained fire from Madrid's coterie of local hacks.

Del Bosque's post-match defence of the defence - or more specifically of the under-fire veteran Hierro, only served to attract more vitriol, since most Madrid observers think that Hierro picks himself and is effectively the manager anyway.

It was no coincidence, therefore, that by the Friday it had been made clear to Del Bosque that his reasonable and timidly-expressed desire for a wage rise was to be ignored.

The manager earns a decent whack, about £700,000-a-year to be precise, but that's an awful lot less than most of the players that he leaves on the bench every week, and nowhere near as much as his contemporaries at Europe's top clubs.

Not one to make a fuss, Del Bosque asked his agent a week before the Juve game to have a quiet chat with Valdano and Pérez about the possibility of a little bit more, to which his immediate superiors replied with a resounding negative.

Valdano, unusually brusque, announced to the press on Saturday that they'd offered the manager the same package, and that he could effectively take it or leave it.

Another instance, it would seem, of 'Fast-food football', as the writer Santi Segurola put it, since if Real had beaten Juve then surely the manager's wage demands would have been met.

You get the impression that Del Bosque would be just as happy sitting on the lawn with his grandchildren, smoking a pipe or reading the paper as the world goes by.
Vicente del Bosque

What sort of policy is this? Del Bosque is either good for the club or he's not, and in the case of the former, he should surely have been rewarded with something. As it stands, in terms of mere dignity, he'll probably be unable to take the snub and will leave.

Valdano and Pérez's reluctance to bite the bullet suggests that they have both fallen for the hype, and that they too believe that Uncle Vicente is not up to it, in the final analysis. But the history of the club is littered with such mistakes, especially with the idea that the world's biggest deserve a higher-profile manager, a Cappello for example.

But when Morientes swore at Del Bosque for asking him to enter the fray in the 89th minute of this season's game against Dortmund, the manager had a quiet word the following day and the incident was put to rest - a telling piece of diplomacy with regard to the strengths of Real current manager.

The contrast with Sir Alex Ferguson, who had himself been embroiled in a changing-room incident with David Beckham the same week, was most significant. Ferguson allegedly apologised to Beckham for the flying-boot incident, but you got the feeling that he acting was under obligation.

Players who cross Ferguson, like Japp Stam for instance, soon find themselves at another club. Ferguson prefers the despotic approach to management, and brooks no opposition. Had Morientes had the nerve to speak to Ferguson in the way he spoke to Del Bosque, he would have been on the transfer list the following morning.

But Del Bosque dealt with the problem in his usual way - talking to the player quietly, assuring him that he had a future at Real Madrid (unlikely in truth) and accepting his apology.

In Spain, this sort of behaviour is almost akin to saintliness, the country's men - and by extension their football managers - preferring the confrontational end of the behavioural continuum because it confirms their manliness, protects their masculinity.

This is probably true of football all over the world, but in Spain it is particularly apparent. Here, he who shouts loudest lives longest, unfortunately. The fact that Del Bosque does not go in for this sort of nonsense is interesting, and seems to be one of the reasons why he has survived at the club for so long.

Del Bosque is what is known in Spain as an 'apagafuegos', literally a man who puts out fires. This refers less to a professional fire-fighter than to a sleeping diplomat, the sort of person you can call up in a crisis and ask to take over the reins for a few months whilst things get sorted out and a new high-profile boss is employed.

This is precisely the role that Del Bosque had been playing for various years at Madrid, in the same way that Barcelona would call on ex-player and local hero Charly Rexach to take over whenever there was an interregnum period.

Vicente Del Bosque
Empics / MikeEgertonDel Bosque: Ousted

Roberto Carlos, the players' unofficial spokesman, put in his oar before the Malaga game and praised Del Bosque for his human qualities, adding explicitly that they all wanted him to stay. And he means it.

But Del Bosque is no fool, and like Harold Wilson he knows that 'a week is a long time in politics' as it is indeed in football - up one week and down the next. Despite his popularity in Madrid and the country in general, he will have seen that in the end he is the easiest target.

Life's like that, and you get the impression that Del Bosque would be just as happy sitting on the lawn with his grandchildren, smoking a pipe or reading the paper as the world goes by.

An uncomplicated chap, he can do without the accusations that have been levelled at him when the team has been going through its so-called 'crisis' periods - the chief criticism of him being that apart from his tactical naivety he allows the best players to determine the patterns of play - an accusation identical to the one levelled at Bobby Robson when he was at Barcelona.

The idea is that your grandmother could actually manage the present Real Madrid side, containing, as it does, the world's top five players. Del Bosque is a man-manager, the rumour goes, and that's about it - there's nothing more to him. One Spanish league, two Champions League wins, one Intercontinental Cup, one European Supercup since 1999 have been a sort of happy accident.

The Del Bosque story has also restored the Spanish public's faith in the abilities of their home-grown managers, with Javier Irureta also doing a decent job over at Deportivo.

If he decides to stay, he will also have broken the dim-witted cycle of 'boom and bust', to quote a phrase from Economics, where big clubs like Real Madrid have always assumed, over the years, that it behoves them to sign big-name foreign managers, only to find that it works out too expensive or that the cultural and sporting pressure exerted by press and public alike becomes impossible for these outsiders to sustain.

Despite Madrid's cosmopolitan reputation for managers and players alike, their two longest serving managers have both been Spanish. Del Bosque, with over 175 games now under his belt is second only to the legendary Madrileño Miguel Muñoz, who totalled 417 games as manager.

Uncle Vicente may never overtake Muñoz, probably because he feels that he has better things to do with his life - but you never know.


Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm, can be bought via the internet. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
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