Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Curse of Spain

During Spain's 3-0 victory over Sweden in Euro 2008 Qualifying today, Ray Hudson made a number of comments about how Spain are the perennial underachievers of world football, featuring a plethora of talent at every position and yet having nothing to show for it.

"Nobody knows why", he said.

Bull-ass-crap, Mr. Hudson.

The reason, as explained to me by my culé co-worker Eduardo, as well as laid out in Phil Ball's excellent book Morbo, is that Spain is an incredibly divided nation. There is no Spanish monoculture; there's a collection of ethnic/cultural groups, all of which have historical reasons for not liking each other. As Eduardo said when I first tried to talk to him about the national team: "Fuck Spain. I'm Catalan, not Spanish. While I'm interested in how the national team does, the only team I root for is Barcelona."

I'm certain the same is true for many other Catalans/Basques/etc. and while there are plenty of people (mainly in Madrid) who want to see some sort of united team, you get the sense that there's still some simmering resentment of the members of the 'other' Spanish cities who happen to play for the national team. And while these differences certainly have a questionable affect, if any, on the action on the field, is so tied into a common feeling among both players and fans, that any sort of basic political schism in the team must at some point represent enough extra friction to keep things from running smoothly. And to win an international tournament, one needs smoothness.

Which is a pity, because the current Spanish side can play some breathtaking football. Today, Aragones put out a lineup that featured Ramos-Puyol-Marchena-Capedevila across the back, with Albeda acting as a midfield librero in front of the defense while Xavi acted as the pivot in midfield. Iniesta and Fabregas seemed to have license to pop up anywhere. David Silva switched flanks with impunity while David Villa played a floating position up top. The end result was a nastily fluid team, reminiscent of the recent trends in La Liga and the EPL that favor a team that can adjust itself on the fly and relies on technical, one-touch football to break down a bunkered team.

It's the transition midfielders that really make the difference with this team. In terms of box-to-box midfielders, Spain have an astonishing number players who are not only good; it's arguable that they have 3 out of the top 5 in the world. Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas are all comfortable with the ball at their feet, can tackle if they need to, run all day, make the killer pass and with the slight exception of Xavi, are good-to-excellent finishers. Oh, and they're some of the best tactical players in the game today. Still, every time Xavi got the ball, you could feel tension in the Bernabeu, tension that couldn't do anything to the machine today; still, you never know when a little bit of grist will get in the gears.

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