Spain secured the win they needed against Slovakia, but as Sid Lowe reports, there remain tensions within Vicente Del Bosque's squad.
Spain won their sixth game in seven, beating Slovakia 2-0 at the Carlos Tartiere, with goals from Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta Which doesn’t sound all that important, and it doesn’t sound much like a crunch game either, but it was. It certainly felt like that.
Slovakia had won nine out of nine coming into the game, including a 2-1 victory over Spain, and came into the game top of the group. As for Spain, they were level with third placed Ukraine, who had just defeated Bielorrussia. In other words, lose and they would have been six points off the top and level with Ukraine, with whom they would be fighting for second place … and their final game is away in Ukraine. So, it mattered that they won.
The way they won mattered too. Spain have not always convinced since the World Cup, even when they have been winning. Here, there was a bit of the old Spain. “The reconquest begins in Asturias,” one headline said, a nod to the Catholic Reconquista of Spain which began in Covadonga in 722.
“Spain return” ran another. David Silva, playing in a rarely-seen central role, was at the heart of it, producing a performance so good that, asked about it later on, one team-mate simply started laughing. “Unbelievable,” he said. “David was on a completely different level.”
It wasn’t all good news, though: there are still doubts, in particular surrounding Diego Costa. He has scored just one goal in eight games for Spain and is yet to find his role within the collective functioning of the selección: a good player for sure but maybe not a good fit. Or not yet, anyway. There is still work to be done and in Costa’s defence, apart from David Villa, Spain’s strikers have invariably found it difficult in a system that tends to starve them of space. Costa has been given more chances than many in the long list of strikers that proceeded him, but the pressure is building. “I haven’t done anything for Spain yet,” the Brazilian admitted.
There were 7,000 spare seats at the 30,000 Carlos Tartiere stadium in Oviedo. That would be striking anyway, but even more baffling is that it comes after reports that the game would be (pretty much was, in fact) a sell-out, reports which can only have discouraged fans from trying to buy tickets.
Once again, the issue of allocations for sponsors, federations and ‘friends’ is raised. As Roberto Bayon points out, on August 26, the RFEF said there were only 200 tickets left. Two days later they said there were only 96 tickets left. And three days after that they said they had released 700 seats, most of them restricted view. But then the day before the game they said there was 2,000 tickets left, which had been passed up by those who had tickets saved for them (the RFEF’s ‘compromisos’, or promises … to sponsors etc). And on the night of the game, the attendence was under 23,000.
The issue that really stood out from the match was not that, though. It was the whistling for Gerard Piqué from Spain’s own fans. A number of reasons have been given for it, from Piqué’s Catalanism to his habit of sticking his foot in it with provocative comments and jokes, especially when it comes to Real Madrid.
“We know what he’s like and we’re not going to change him,” Sergio Ramos said. “I think it’s more a Barcelona-Madrid issue than a political one,” Vicente Del Bosque said.
If so, it is odd (or perhaps it is not) that it should manifest itself during national team games. The political background remains clear, although it really started in Leon, after Piqué had cracked a joke during Barcelona’s treble celebrations thanking Colombian singer Kevin Roldan for his infamous performance at Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthday party the day that they had lost 4-0 to Atlético — all of which caused a huge and entirely exaggerated, frankly quite ridiculous storm in the media.
“It all started with you, Kevin,” Piqué had joked. His targets were a Portuguese and a Colombian but the backlash came in a game for Spain in Leon and continued in Oviedo.
All other issues aside, it can’t help Spain much for one of their own players to be whistled. “If Piqué is whistled, it damages us all,” Del Bosque said.