From perennial under-achievers to perpetual favourites in considerably less than ten years, the first decade of the twenty-first century was the one that transformed the world’s perception of the Spanish national football team. Spain began the new century living very much down to people’s expectations, with a quarter-final defeat at the 2000 European Championships being followed up with a quarter-final defeat in the World Cup two years later and a first round elimination at Euro 2004. At some time around the middle of the decade, though, something clicked and Spain became all-conquering and fearsome. They matched France’s turn of the century achievement of winning the European Championships and the World Cup back-to-back – albeit in reverse order – and go into this summers finals as the favourites to win the tournament again.
Yet is there a possibility that, in an age in which club football, and in particular European club football, rules the roost absolutely, our minds may get Spain and the two grandest clubs of the era, Barcelona and Real Madrid, a little mixed up. How many people, we might well wonder, will be half-expecting – perhaps in spite of themselves – Lionel Messi to turn out for them this summer? After all, he plays for a team that wear red and blue and seem to win all the time. Spain, however, are more workmanlike than Barcelona. Those two major tournament wins came as a result of hard-fought single goal wins in the final, matches that were as dependent upon solid defending as on outrageously flamboyant attacking football.
The History: Spain, then – the team of Franco’s bizarre ultra-nationalist take on Cold War politics, the apparently habitual under-achievers and then the global conquistadors. When the General pulled his team out of the 1960 European Championships rather than send them to Moscow to play the Soviet Union, Franco was playing out the global politics of an era on a strangely small and isolationist stage. The USSR went on to win that first tournament, but four years later Franco was more than happy to see his team take them on in Madrid in the final of the competition and win. For the next four and a half decades, though, came nothing. Even when hosting the World Cup finals in 1982, they were beaten by Northern Ireland in the first group stage before being knocked out in the second group stage, even managing the ignominy of even finishing below England. This cycle of disappointment continued until 2008, when a single goal was enough to beat Germany in the European Championships, and was repeated two years later in South Africa when they repeated the same trick against the Netherlands.
The Team: David Villa is injured and will not be playing this summer and this will be a big loss for them, but other than that it looks as if it will be business as normal for Spain, although slight injury concerns remain over Cesc Fabregas. It is, perhaps, the levels of experience that are the most frightening statistic to look at. Goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas has played one hundred and twenty-nine times for his country, whilst Xavi has made ninety-one appearances, Fernado Torres ninety-one, Xabi Alonso ninety-four and Sergio Ramos eighty-four. In addition to this, Xavi is the oldest member of the squad at just thirty-two years old, so those hoping amongst hopes that the backbone of this team may be past their best could be in for an unpleasant surprise as well. With twelve of their twenty-three players coming from Barcelona or Real Madrid, this is also a team that knows each other inside-out. On paper, this is the strongest squad in the tournament.
The Coach: If the 2012 European Championships are the Jurassic Park of the world of football coaching, then Vincente Del Bosque is its Tyrannosaurus Rex. His Madrid connections – more than three hundred games for the club as a player and one of its most successful ever coaches – may not make him terribly popular in Catalunya, but there can be little questioning his ability or record in the game. He won La Liga five times and the Copa del Rey four times as a player, and as a manager has won – deep breath – La Liga twice, the Champions League twice, the Intercontinental Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Spanish Supercopa, as well as the World Cup two years ago. Magnificently described by the BBC as, “Cool as a cryogenically-frozen cucumber” Del Bosque is amongst the most unlikely of international football managers in the modern era. Quietly spoken and popular amongst the players, he is close to being an immovable object, and it is arguably a testimonyto his talents that no coach at the Bernabeu since his time there has yet managed to match his achievements with Real at the start of the last decade. There’s still time, though, Jose. There’s still time.
The Kit: Spain have been with Adidas for more than twenty years now, proving that there are many ways for a canny marketing department to knock out varying versions of a red shirt and blue shorts combination with yellow trim. Still, this year’s edition is a pleasingly migraine-inducing red and blue – if you’re going to do primary colours, do them boldly – but more notable is the change kit of sky blue with a navy blue diagonal sash. Yum.
The Prospects: Look, we all know how good this Spain team is, yes? Good. Better, then, to look at reasons why they could conceivably not win this summers tournament. Well, Barcelona and Real Madrid both failed to win the Champions League this season (although it was two Spanish clubs that did contest the Europa League final) and one could argue – although how many would agree with this is less than certain – that complacency could kick in with two straight tournament wins under their belts. It is also worth reminding everyone reading this that they lost to England and drew with Costa Rica earlier this year. Yes, yes, they’re only friendly matches, but these are still not good results. The good news for Spain is that they should, no matter what, get through the group stages. It is difficult to see them slipping up against Ireland or Croatia, though Italy, their opening match, may prove a tougher nut to crack. So, there are reasons why they might not lift the trophy this summer. Convinced? No? Good, because neither are we.
The National Anthem: Spain: “Marcha Real” (The Royal March) What is the one thing everyone knows about the Spanish national anthem? It has no lyrics. The tune is reasonably old amongst the sixteen anthems for this summer’s competition, dating back to the mid-eighteenth Century. The full version of the tune should, protocol has it, only be played for the King of Spain, so a truncated version is used for sporting events. There have been various attempts at fitting lyrics to the melody down the years, of course, but none of them has stuck – unsurprisingly enough when you consider one of the last concerted efforts took place under the reign of the less-than-lovely General Franco.
The very latest chapter in the story came after the Spanish sports minister witnessed some spirited You’ll Never Walk Alone action at Anfield in 2007 and decided that a good sing-up would be just the thing for Spain, especially as at the time Madrid was bidding to host the 2016 Olympics. The resulting 2008 lyrics – specially designed not to alienate or infuriate any of the country’s autonomous communities – were considered overly-patriotic and generally dreadful. The project was shelved within just five days of their publication:
Long live Spain!
Let’s all sing together,
with different voices,
and only one heart.
Long live Spain!
From the green valleys,
to the immense sea,
a hymn of brotherhood.
They forgot to mention the rain, which falls mainly on the plain.
The British Press Will Say: “Look at them! Just look at them! They’re so… sophisticated! They can pass the ball to each other! Tiki-taka-tiki-taka-tiki-tak!”, and so on, ad nauseum until they win the tournament. Expect confused faces and furrowed brows from Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer if they’re expected to go far beyond this intellectual level, and the occasional orgasm from Clive Tyldesley during their matches.
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