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Spain's National side

Lance Knight2010-05-08 09:25:17 +0000 #1
news on Spain's National side to be posted here
Lance Knight2010-05-08 09:35:34 +0000 #2
Only connect

Phil Ball

The pause in this weekend's league programme for Europe's bigger clubs has provided a useful little space for a bit of reflection, even though - as in the case of Spain - things had hardly even started.

In fact, the shifting back of the emphasis this weekend onto the national side seemed to leave the country in a state of discomfort, as if it did not wish to be reminded of the events of the Portuguese summer and the humiliation of Spain's unexpectedly early exit from the tournament.

Then again, a friendly against Scotland seemed to have a good dual purpose - a bit of post-trauma therapy and a way of boosting the squad's confidence for the World Cup qualifier in Bosnia on Wednesday.

Of course, the game turned out to be neither of these things as it descended into low farce in the 60th minute with floodlight failure brought on by a violent Valencian storm.

The score at the time was 1-1, which was enough to prompt various Spanish journalists into weaving a few metaphors of gloom and doom. 'Apagón total!' (Total blackout!) shouted the tabloid Marca from the rafters, implying that the eventual darkness was a suitable symbol for the team's general vision and application.

A further implication was that new manager Luis Aragonés, who has worn spectacles ever since he retired from playing the game some years ago, had been a bit short on inspiration - the blind leading the blind, as it were.

This was somewhat harsh given the apocalyptic weather conditions and the curious interpretation of the concept of 'friendly' as demonstrated by the Scots.

Webster and Naysmith, in particular, seemed to have come to the conclusion that if it's skilful and it plays football (Joaquên and Reyes), you kick it. The Spanish, whilst not wishing to blame their pale performance solely on the over-enthusiastic aggression of the Scots, did have a word or two to say afterwards about it - Aragonés, who made his international debut against Scotland in Glasgow in 1965 - blaming the French referee for his leniency.

Indeed, it was interesting to see how Bertie Vogts' team have set out their stall for the coming World Cup campaign, beginning their own post-Hungary trauma (0-3) by deciding to rough up opponents and then seeing what might happen.

In the case of the Spain game, it came off for them, because if you clatter people enough in a friendly game they will either clatter you back or retire into their shells.

Not wishing to compromise their chances too much for the Bosnian trip, several Spanish players just didn't want to get involved, although players like Puyol, Marchena and Baraja are perfectly capable of looking after themselves in normal competitive circumstances.

And what was even more interesting was the appearance of another great example of how the interpretation of what constitutes a 'good performance' is utterly subjective.

Or perhaps it's worse than that. Football players and managers do seem to hold the exclusive rights for self-delusion. Where the Spanish press were critical of both sides, the Scots were almost euphoric, hailing the performance as some kind of rebirth. Such a reaction is understandable given their recent run of results, and one wishes them good luck. But I personally saw little in the game to suggest that they will do anything more than struggle.

But then the Spanish, with their tendency to think that their technical ability will always see them through, and their wilful disregard for opponents they consider inferior, were also pulling the wool over their own eyes by suggesting that the improved second-half performance, and the allegedly burgeoning relationship between Raúl and Reyes (based on two passes to each other) will see them through the Bosnian test.

The fact that Raúl scored a goal again was proof to the tabloids that he was back from the grave - that he was onto his game again. Maybe.

But the truth of the matter is that Xabi Alonso was about to take the 57th minute penalty when Luis Aragonés sent out word that he wanted Raúl to take it.

He scored, so all is well in the heavens. The awkward fact that the Spanish defence was opened up several times by a debutant striker (Crawford) playing in the equivalent of the old English Division One (no disrespect to Plymouth) merited rather less word count.

It all reminded me of Jose Mourinho's first appearance under the post-game glare of BBC's Match of the Day lighting crew. Having just beaten Birmingham 1-0 away and thus registering their second minimalist win of the season, Mourinho was asked if he thought that Chelsea were 'negative'. He of course denied the accusation. He was then asked why everyone else thought they were negative. 'Because people doesn't understand football' he replied.

You could almost see the vein standing out on pundit Alan Hansen's forehead, but defective 3rd person singulars aside, Mourinho seemed to have a point. Chelsea had six points in the bag, despite the fact that they had enjoyed precious little possession in either of their opening games, and their supporters were already taking delight in the new dawn with the chant '1-0 to the Chelseee!'

My own hometown side, Grimsby Town, might well take heed of this minimalist creed. Playing attractively in the murky depths of the English League Two but with only seven points from their first seven games, a supporter wrote to one of the club's websites last week with the plea 'Can we stop dominating games and start winning them please?'

Mourinho's tactical nous is what the English game needs, but his successful start and the supporters' acceptance of the new 'Oporto style' pragmatism demonstrate clearly that what supporters really want is results. Well - English ones anyway. Nottingham Forest, whose record unbeaten run was recently overhauled by Arsenal, were very much in the Oporto mould, but no-one cares now. Brian Clough's team has gone down in history as one of the great English post-war sides.

More than anything, it would seem that players and supporters respond best to managers who hold convictions. The convictions might be ugly ones, but they motivate players in a way that almost always guarantees success.

In Spain, one of the problems with this truth is that people sometimes confuse shouting with conviction. Making a lot of noise is an overrated aspect of sports management over here, the prime culprit being Real Madrid's manager José Antonio Camacho. Those who prefer the quieter approach, like Benito Floro or Vicente Del Bosque never seem to prosper in the public opinion quite so much.

One manager who had quiet but firmly held convictions is Rafa Benêtez, but to the possible detriment of the Spanish game, he has been welcomed into the Premiership. One wonders what might have happened had Liverpool not moved in for him early last summer. Would he have been offered the national job, instead of Luis Aragonés? It's difficult to say, but Aragonés, whilst also a thoughtful manager, shouts (and smokes) more than Benitez. Job guaranteed.

So what of style - football's permanently awkward bedfellow? In Spain, as in other countries, certain teams demand it because the urban culture from which their team springs has always been associated with it.

Barcelona, for example, has always been a stylish and innovative city, and so its football teams have tried to follow suit. Frank Rijkaard, another manager who seems to hold a quiet set of convictions, has followed the cultural script to the letter, and assembled a side that looks big on aesthetics. Since few Barça managers have been sacked for the crime of style over content, Rijkaard looks safe for the time being, even if his side eventually flatters to deceive. We shall see.

At the other end of the scale, a team like Athletic Bilbao demand ninety minutes of sweat and utter commitment to the cause - this being their interpretation of 'style'. But it has brought them success in the not-too-distant past.

Real Madrid, like Manchester United, prefer a combination of the two, and Valencia, though they have tended towards the pragmatic in recent years, have always been historically associated with flair. Ignore these roots at your peril? This is clearly untrue in England, as the Mourinho example shows.

Chelsea, always a side associated with mavericks and style, have seemingly embraced something a little duller, but largely because it is based on conviction and it smells of success. As E.M Forster wrote, 'Only connect - the heart and the head'. It could be the new mantra.

Whatever, Spain seem to be passing through some sort of transitional period. The national side is packed full of quality, but looks unsure of itself. The style, as ever, is there, but the conviction required to use it to full advantage may still be lacking. If only the Spanish Federation had the financial whack of Abramovich...
Lance Knight2010-05-08 09:44:14 +0000 #3
spain win 2-0 against Belgium

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