The national side are in sparkling form ahead of the World Cup
Spain’s last game before they name their final squad in June could be summed up in a single word. The same word that could also be used to sum up their qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup. The same word could be used again for their Euro 2008 campaign.
It is the same word, in fact, that could be used to sum up everything the seleccion have done over the last three years under both Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque in a near-impeccable run that has seen them installed as one of the favourites in South Africa. That same word came tumbling down from the stands at the beginning of March as Spain moved the ball effortlessly around midfield against France, and the same word that graced the covers of the country’s two best-selling sports newspapers the following day.
That word is “Ole”.
For Spain fans to launch into chants of ole is nothing new. But what made this time different was that it was the fans of France. This was not the Santiago Bernabeu but the Stade de France in Paris.
“The Stade de France greeted Spain as if it was La Maestranza [Spain’s most evocative and emblematic bullring],” noted one headline.
Compliments don’t come greater
As France chased after the ball, only for it to be effortlessly moved on, teasing, fooling, manipulating and moving them, it was France’s fans purring. Compliments don’t come much greater. France had been led a dance in Paris.
There was, of course, an element of protest as well as praise in the oles. By lauding Spain, those fans were lifting a middle finger at their own national team. There were also boos and whistles for Thierry Henry and chants for Raymond Domenech to resign. Cheering Spain may have served to rub it in, but it also expresses admiration for a side that won 2-0 with goals from David Villa – with his 36th strike in just 55 games for the national team leaving him only eight behind Raul’s all-time record, despite having played 47 games fewer – and Sergio Ramos.
Afterwards, Spain coach Del Bosque insisted he had not been that impressed with the performance, claiming his side lacked aggression and attacking intent. But, he admitted, they had felt in control. And that was the point. Spain had not won in France for 42 years and it had been Les Blues who had knocked them out of the last World Cup. But you would never have guessed it. Spain had completely dominated, easing their way through 90 minutes in comfort.
There is a quiet, efficient authority about them that is quite stunning.
“Spain play with such ease, it’s incredible,” commented the watching Arsene Wenger.
“We are playing with great confidence and tremendous ease,” said goalkeeper Iker Casillas as he came off the pitch having racked up his 102nd Spain game, more than anyone else in history other than Andoni Zubizarreta. It might have sounded arrogant had it not been for the fact that it was so evidently true. On the pitch, there is a swagger about Spain, an absolutely unshakable conviction about what they are doing; off it, humility remains the word.
“With this style, when they keep the ball, they are the best in the world,” insisted the former Spain coach, Javier Clemente.
Suffering on the touchline, France coach Domenech could not agree more. “Spain have confirmed that they are one of the great favourites for the World Cup,” he said. “They have exceptional talent and more importantly than that all of their talent is sacrificed for the collective good. They play without haste, there is no rush, and yet they do so with intensity and intent.
“Their circulation of the ball is spectacular and the final pass from their midfield is almost like a penalty.”
Asked how he thought teams would deal with Spain in South Africa – the heavy hint being that opponents may try to kick the seleccion out of their stride – Domenech shrugged and looked on the bright side. “All I know is that it’s almost impossible to get the ball when you play against Spain and that obliges opponents to think of any solution whatsoever,” he said.
“Luckily, we wouldn’t play Spain until the Final, so I don’t need to think of that just yet.”
Thierry Henry was equally effusive in his praise. “It’s lovely to watch Spain on the television, but when you actually play against them you can’t get the ball off them. It’s impossible,” he sighed. “I don’t know if Spain will win in South Africa but they are stronger favourites than Brazil.
“They have Villa up front and then send on Torres. They have Xabi Alonso and Cesc, Iniesta, Xavi and Silva. It’s incredible. They are a great side.”
Henry’s list was telling. Against France, Spain boasted Xavi, Senna, Navas and Torres…on the bench.
The level of talent in the squad is astonishing, while the stability and continuity helps to bring the best out of them. There is no question mark over the style, few debates about selection – about the only one anybody can dream up surrounds which third goalkeeper should be taken to South Africa, which pretty much says it all – and there is a harmony about the squad that brokers no arguments. The results could be seen on the pitch in France.
But it’s not just about Paris; it is about virtually every game Spain have played for the past three years. They have qualified for the World Cup having won an unprecedented 10 games out of 10 and no one doubted they were worthy winners of Euro 2008. In fact, they have won an incredible 33 of their last 34 competitive games (if you count beating Italy on penalties as a win).
It is true that their World Cup qualifying group was not the hardest – they had to overcome Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey – but they have also faced Argentina, France, England, Italy and the then-European champions, Greece, in friendlies, too, and beaten them all.
In February 2007, Spain beat England 1-0 at Old Trafford with a goal from Iniesta. Three years later, they have played 45 matches and lost just one, against USA in the semi-final of last year’s Confederations Cup – and even that seems to have been good for them, serving as a timely warning against complacency. Only three teams have even managed to draw with them.
Forty-one wins in 45 matches, with 103 goals scored and 22 conceded is testament to their superiority.
No wonder the Spanish are getting excited. In the sports daily Marca, Angel Cabeza wrote: “Hands up any of you who did not go to bed last night with the feeling that no one can stop this team. Step forward those of you who doesn’t think that, barring some major accident or a coincidence of strange events, that we’re coming back from South Africa with the Cup under our arm. Too optimistic? No, just realistic. Watch the video of the game again and you’ll see that I’m not sticking my neck out.” No one stepped forward, no one put up their hands.
Spain must be considered favourites for the World Cup, and not because they do say so themselves.
This time, it was the French who turned Saint Denis into La Maestranza and said so for them.