Tuesday, June 15, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: June 16, 2:52 PM UK
Reasons to be cheerful
Like rock stars of old who are top of the bill at a festival that lasts for several days, Spain will wait in the wings to make its opening appearance on Wednesday afternoon in Durban, the final game of the opening first-match phase. Switzerland is coming along for the ride, too, but more on the Swiss later.
Back at home in Spain, a strange atmosphere prevails, unique in its consensus that La Roja are the tournament's best side, yet oddly restrained in the face of such unbridled optimism. The Spanish are a happy enough lot, as befits their so-called Latin temperament, but one would hardly describe them as eternal optimists.
The country has seen too many self-imposed tragedies for joy to reign too easily, and in many ways the national team's perennial old label of "dark horse" suited Spain better, largely because it provided a get-out clause. But this World Cup sees Spain as a co-favorite in the bookmakers' eyes, and a firmer favorite in the collective retina of many international journalists.
As such, the Spanish are slightly on the back foot, unaccustomed to such universal admiration, unsure of whether to respond with brashly confident sound bites, or to parp the vuvuzelas of caution.
There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. The team arrived at base camp on Friday, the university residence at Potchefstroom, 130 kilometers from Johannesburg. So happy do the players appear and so ideal do the installations and the place itself seem that the only negative aspect is that no Spanish correspondents seem able to pronounce its name. In fact, it's already become "Potch" for many newspapers.
Squad morale is sky-high after the final friendly match against Poland in Murcia last week, when Spain annihilated its admittedly poor visitor 6-0 in a game in which the team could (and perhaps should) have scored a dozen. Spain's second goal, scored by David Silva but manufactured by several others, was, to borrow a metaphor from Arsene Wenger, a PlayStation goal of quite astonishing quality. It was like the Harlem Globetrotters had suddenly reappeared and decided to try their hand at football. It was a goal that the team may never manage to reinvent, but it was the perfect example of the football that so many quick thinkers, fleet of foot and small in stature, can concoct at any given moment.
No side in the competition has so many imaginative passers. It's a very simple thing to say, but its truth is no less significant. As long as bad luck remains distant -- and it was only in the European Championships in 2008 that it decided to stay away -- it's hard to see Spain not making a bit of a splash at this tournament.
The contrasting factors with previous occasions, including the 2008 competition, are illuminating. For starters, this is probably the first time that a Spanish squad has ever gone into a tournament in such a chummy mode -- all for one and one for all. This is Spain's most apolitical squad for decades and, although it is impossible to discount the political factor in any aspect of Spanish life -- from buying a newspaper to buying a packet of sweets -- the buildup to South Africa has been refreshingly free of intrasquad tensions and interregional sniping. There has been no fire across the domestic trenches, for the first time in living memory.
Those who know Spain's national football scene only from its recent happy years can be forgiven for their innocence. Spain's dreadful showing as host in 1982 still rankles, but the rumors back then were that the squad, rather too carefully assembled to reflect the new happy democracy of Basques, Catalans and Madrilenos all working together for the national cause, was in fact the reason for the failure.
Now the only real Basque is Xabi Alonso, and he plays for Real Madrid. Xavi and Carles Puyol have been on too many trips with Iker Casillas to really wish him any bad karma, and Sergio Ramos would be unlikely to recognize the word "politics" if it pulled him by the ponytail. The only alleged tensions in the camp before the squad flew south were between two of the goalkeepers, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes, a spat that supposedly dates from their days together in Barcelona's junior ranks -- but even this has been vigorously denied from within. All seems calm and collected.
A fine example of this is the relationship between the Spanish press and the manager, Vicente del Bosque. It was always a Spanish tradition, well-oiled and practiced, that the press would despise the national manager, and vice versa. Things got so bad with Javi Clemente that there was even an outbreak of handbags in the squad's hotel foyer in 1998 in France and, in general, manager-baiting has been a time-honored national sport. Luis Aragones managed to finally silence the tedious complaints of the pro-Raul camp only when he brought home Spain's first international trophy in 44 years without Real Madrid's talented but often divisive captain.
But Del Bosque is the avuncular, pipe-smoking father figure of the nation. Not blessed with Armani smoothness, he is nevertheless cuddly, with a minimalist approach to training and to press conferences that never really gives journalists anything to use against him. In the unlikely event that Spain goes out at the group stage, he will still be revered.
There are no real injury problems to worry the squad, either, with only Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres arriving less than 100 percent fit. Torres is unlikely to start against the Swiss but should subsequently see plenty of action. Iniesta has a muscle problem in the right leg from almost a month ago, but such are the options available that even he would not be excessively missed. And the scary thing for the rest of the teams in this tournament is that Spain has added further quality to the victorious squad of 2008.
Gerard Pique joins a decent set of established or potential center backs (Carlos Marchena, Carles Puyol, Raul Albiol and Sergio Ramos), most of whom are all comfortable on the ball, but not as comfortable as Pique, perhaps with the exception of the colossus Ramos. But it gives del Bosque further options. Alvaro Arbeloa looks equally comfortable, like Sergio Ramos, at fullback or in the center. In midfield, Spain has lost Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla but has gained Bilbao's clever strongman Javi Martinez, and Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, already set up as Xabi Alonso's protector and foil. Valencia's Juan Mata, Barcelona's Pedro and Sevilla's hyperactive winger Jesus Navas are also relatively new to the scene, and whereas Mata may have his work cut out to figure in the crucial games, Navas may emerge as one of the new stars and Pedro may be central to second-half switches in tactics.
Even if no one emerges, it is the established players who have just got better, who are not even peaking. Spain has three goalkeepers the envy of any nation, the world's best distributing/holding midfielder in Alonso, and the world's best "advanced pivot" in Xavi Hernandez. The latter is no spring chicken at 30, but he shows no signs of decline. Iniesta has freedom to roam, and Cesc Fabregas is not even guaranteed a place.
Up front, David Villa is as sharp as ever and, if any defenses do manage to cope with his movement and his numerous supply lines, Bilbao's new striker on the block, Fernando Llorente, is a capable "Crouch" figure who can be introduced to terrorize in the air. Spain can get basic as well, if the occasion requires.
What can possibly go wrong? Well, football's a funny game and it's all looking a bit too perfect for Spain. Of the three opponents for the group stage, Chile looks to be the stiffest opposition, since the Swiss are not what they were, and Honduras carries little threat. If Spain were to be held to a draw by the Chileans, there is always the possibility of finishing second in the group and meeting the winner of Group G in the knockout round. The winner of G could well be Brazil, which would set up a prematurely nuclear encounter that nobody wants at that stage.
It's unlikely to happen, but its very possibility will ensure that nobody in the Spanish camp is relaxing -- often a problem in the past when the team was handed an ostensibly comfortable scenario. Logic dictates that Spain can win its first-ever World Cup, keeping the neutrals happy and giving a boost to a country slowly darkening in the shadows of economic crisis. But the fact that logic doesn't always prevail is what makes football so interesting.