El Futuro de la Roja

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 22/08/12)

With the country’s economic situation hanging in the balance and unemployment recently rising to a record 24.6%, the exploits of Spain’s national team has provided a shining light amid the widespread Iberian uncertainty.

The summer began with La Furia Roja going into the Euros looking for an unprecedented third consecutive title.  Critics, already penning their tiki-taka obituaries, had questioned their hunger before the tournament began and their striker-less formation even drew accusations of being “boring” from some corners, claiming that the style sacrificed effectiveness for aesthetics.  A comprehensive 4-0 victory in the final silenced the detractors as Spain achieved their historic feat with a devastating flourish.

In a side boasting such an array of attacking talent, it was the defensive record of Del Bosque’s Spain that was particularly impressive. Shipping just one goal all tournament and also increasing their record of not having conceding in a knockout game since 2006, Spain redefined the definitions of attack and defence.  Their much-lauded possession based game – usually seen as a potent attack weapon, a matador-esque toying with the opponent before delivering the killer blow – was shown to be as effective as a defensive tool as the whole team worked in unison, depriving the opposition of the chance to launch attacks, draining their energy and simultaneously creating their own goal-scoring opportunities. If that is classed as boring, well then sign me up for plenty more!

So what next for the side that has done it all? As Brazil 2014 looms closer the same questions will undoubtedly resurface again. Will there be a lack of hunger for a team that has won it all? Is it the end of cycle with the likes of Xavi and Puyol gone or past their best?  These quandaries alongside assertions of more youthful sides such as Germany and Brazil hitting their peak and the ‘home advantage’ enjoyed by South Americans – only South American nations have won World Cups in Latin America – will be employed to downplay Spain’s chances.

Addressing the first issue – that supposed sudden loss of appetite – what could be more of a motivation than winning a World Cup in the back yard of the most successful nation? A fourth consecutive title would surely put any argument of whether Spain are ‘best ever’ to bed once and for all.  

Regarding the end of a cycle argument, it is true some players will be gone and others perhaps past their prime. Xavi will be 34, Xabi Alonso and David Villa 32, Iniesta and Torres will be 30.  Bar perhaps Xavi, these players, plus an evergreen Casillas at 33, will still have plenty to give in what could be a perfect swansong.  More importantly key players should be hitting top form.  Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Javi Martnez, Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro, Juan Mata, David Silva – none will be older than 28.

On top of a squad brimming with proven talent, there will be a number of young players looking to make the plane to Rio and this summer gave us a very interesting glimpse at some of the new generation tasked with continuing Spain’s legacy.

The under-23 Olympic side were one of the favourites along with Brazil going into the Games in London and contained a whole host of promises.  Along with overage players Mata, Alba and Javi Martínez, the squad boasted an enviable assembly of Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea, Bilbao starlets Iker Muniain and Ander Herrera, Malaga’s talented Isco, Atlético Madrid duo Koke and Adrián and Barcelona’s Cristian Tello. 

Shock losses to Japan and Honduras and a goalless draw to Morocco saw Spain’s apprentices crash out of the tournament at the group stage without scoring a goal. This disastrous showing came as an unwelcome surprise for a nation accustomed to victory, sparking introspective soul searching.  José Sámano of El País wrote “Football returns to the cave” in a platonic illusion to Spain’s underperforming past, highlighting a lack of hunger, bite and leadership.  Ramon Besa reserved particular criticism for coach Luis Milla due to his selection (some players carrying injuries, others out of form and perhaps tiredness of the overage players), tactics and poor decision-making in games.

The absence of Thiago Alcântara was certainly a huge blow but nevertheless Spain were expected and should have done with the players available to them.  A disaster: not entirely.  A tough but important lesson: certainly.

Luis Milla subsequently lost his post as under-21 coach and was replaced by Julen Lopetegui, the man who guided Spain’s under-19 team to victory in the UEFA European Championship earlier that summer.  La Rojita overcame a stubborn Greece side 1-0 in the final to secure their second successive title at this level.

There were a number of stand-out performers to prove that Spain has plenty future stars on the production line.  Real Madrid striker Jesé Rodríguez netted the only goal in the final and finished top scorer with an impressive five.  Barcelona forward Gerard Deulofeu (who recently scored a hat-trick for Barcelona B) showed bursts of brilliance and the weighed with important goals against France.  Fellow La Masia product Alejandro Grimaldo, 16, also showed signs that he can provide long term competition for Jordi Alba at left back.

The best player though was Atlético Madrid’s midfield maestro Óliver Torres.  Possessing great vision and a wonderful range of passing, the 17-year-old was at the centre of everything in the heart of Spain’s midfield and it won’t be long until he starts making waves in La Liga.

Captain José Campaña also impressed at the base of midfield and the versatile Suso turned in some impressive displays. Valencia striker Paco Alcácer had to make do with appearances from the bench but is another good prospect while goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has a promising future ahead of him.

The centre back pairing of Jonás Ramalho (the first mixed-race player to play for Bilbao) and Derik Osede weren’t entirely convincing and Spain conceded three against France and Portugal.  However, they showed great fight and spirit to win a deserved title.  The next World Cup might be too soon for the majority but we could see a surprise call up and if they continue their upward trajectories Spain will be a force for years to come.

Despite La Liga faltering as a growing disparity emerging between the top two and the rest of the league – as explained in this brilliant article by Sid Lowe – and Spain’s awful Olympic campaign, the future is most definitely burning bright for the national team.  The bar will be set high but with a strong core of players hitting their peak and talented youngsters coming through the ranks, Spain have more than what it takes to be considered among the favourites for Brazil in two years’ time.