Tuesday, June 13, 2006

World Cup Woe

Tomorrow Spain start their World Cup crusade against fellow Group H squatters, Ukraine. Unfortunately however nobody back home has any real hope for the national side achieving much success in the German finals. In fact in recent days their attitude has been summed up perfectly by the constantly coined phrase, “España jugará como nunca, pero perderá como siempre,” meaning “Spain will play like never before, but loose like always before”.

Nonetheless looking back on this country’s World Cup experiences to date, no one can blame the poor souls for such “memory weary optimism”. After all there is a lot to remember given that they are now partaking in their eighth consecutive World Cup with their last absence from the competition having been in 1974. Remarkably despite such an impressive perseverance the best that the country has ever achieved since the founding of the Real Federación Espanola de Fútbol was 4th place in 1950 AD.

Enter any of Madrid’s more authentic drinking establishments where the older generations frequent and you hear them lament more than seventy years of World Cup misfortune. The ancient barflies start by bemoaning “the biggest robbery of the century” when in 1934 the host nation Italy played dirty football and cheated with their substitute changes. Then to make matters worse the referee also disallowed two Spanish scores before permitting an illegal Italian goal. Next comes Mexico 1986 when the still vilified Australian referee named Bambridge dismissed the greatest goal ever scored by a certain Michel. As if that was not bitter memory enough, there then crops up the 1998 Italian elbow in the face of Luis Enrique in the area. “Brutal aggression without punishment!” shouts the barman. Neither a red card nor a penalty was given in a game lost 2-1. Subsequently FIFA presented Tassotti with an eight-match ban while the negligent referee went on to govern the final. “Blind justice!!” my barman added. Lastly in their sorry list comes the most recent fiasco which occurred in Japan-Korea 2002. The husky voices claim that the Egyptian referee was ostensibly biased against Spain in his management of the game and did not allow two goals from Morientes and Helguera. As a result host nation Korea qualified on penalties at Spains expense. Even now this remains a painful recollection as they felt that they missed a great opportunity to do something very special.

However bad luck is not reason enough. So why the under achievement of successive Spanish sides who on paper are a potent force but inevitably perform poorly on the pitch? One of the many local opinions is that their team always lacks a leader, something that all other World Cup sides produce in abundance. Perhaps this is because even at Spanish club level such a role seems to be forever taken on by foreign players. For example it is Requilmer of Argentina who inspires his colleagues at Villarreal, Ronaldinho who rallies the troupe in Barcelona, while Real Madrid have looked to the likes of the Argentine Redondo and of course more recently, the French Zidane. People feel that even the great Spanish players are used to being led by others and hence cannot cope when they find themselves burdened with the increased responsibility.

In addition to this perceived lack of leadership is a discernable absence of style. Local critics complain of unintelligent football with players running about confusedly without any clear strategy in mind. One friend has gone so far as to compare the team to a holiday village friendship. By this he means huge enthusiasm that in the end achieves absolutely nothing.

Naturally such sceptical talk has increased in recent days with the unimpressive friendlies against Russia, Egypt and the Czech Republic. Many now question the wisdom of fielding the 28-year-old Raul who against Egypt scored his first international goal in 9 months. How and ever the true dilemma here is that Raúl is the only player who can act as that badly needed leader on the pitch. I expect that this may well become a national debate in the coming days.

Curiously it is anticipated that the disaster of the Real Madrid season will mean that Galactic´s such as Salgado, Ramos and Raúl will be hungrier and out to prove, thus shedding the individualistic mentality that breeds in their Madrid club. However I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for this after listening to these very same players state vaguely that their strategy will be to keep possession and take advantage of the individual skills on the team.

Ranked 8th by FIFA, Spain are understandably desperate for success as the last title won was the European Cup in 1964. As a result, in the miraculous event that the Iberians do put an end to their trophy drought, the entire squad including backroom staff will receive a bonus of a staggering 540,000 Euros, three times that of Brazil and indeed the highest of the competition.

With regard to valued experience, only six of the panel of 23 have previously played in a World Cup. Thankfully though this has turned out to be a source of hope for players and fans alike as the younger are said to be used to finals, used to winning and more importantly very comfortable on the ball under pressure. The average team age is 23.5 years with the youngest being Cesc at 19 and the oldest, Cañizares at 36. Other data worth considering is that the only two players to have played in every match of the World Cup qualification are Iker Casillas and Raúl. Meanwhile an unlikely match starter is David Villa of Valencia despite being the season top scorer with a league tally of 25 goals.

Group H means that in the preliminary stage Spain will come up against Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the said Ukraine. The winner of this phase will then be pitted against the runner up from Group G, meaning a clash with France, Korea or even Togo. On the other hand, second place from Spain´s group will have the unenviable task of playing the winner of this other group. Thankfully for the Spanish they will not clash with Brazil, the certain victor of Group F, until the quaterfinals. In any case only a madman could expect them to survive a such an onslaught.

Surprisingly the Spaniards have no big rivalry as would most other nations. A game against the French might raise emotions and an encounter with Brazil might cause some fantasy but incredibly Spain has no true rival in the English/Argentine sense of the word. Not even against Italy.

I have noticed that Spanish participation in Germany has not at all turned into an excuse for celebration amongst the Madrileños as would certainly be the case in Ireland. No doubt this is due to the fact that nobody has any hope whatsoever for the Spanish team to get any further than the quarterfinals. Then again perhaps it is only a question of time and the barbeques will only begin to be planned once Spain has played their first competitive match. Still and all, I won’t be placing any large amounts on my adopted country winning, and if needs be, I’ll go and celebrate with the Argentines who take as much pride in their barbeques as their football.

The panel:

Cesc Fábregas- Arsenal
Reyes - Arsenal
Cañizares -Valencia
Puyol - Barcelona
Iniesta -Barcelona
Xavi -Barcelona
Albeda -Valencia
Marchena -Valencia
Villa -Valencia
Reina -Liverpool
Luis García -Liverpool
Xabi Alonso -Liverpool
Iker Casillas -Real Madrid.
Ramos -Real Madrid.
Salgado -Real Madrid
Raúl -Real Madrid
Pablo -Atlético de Madrid
Torres -Atlético de Madrid
López -Atlético de Madrid
Pernía -Atlético de Madrid
Juanito -Betis
Joaquin -Betis
Senna -Villa Real

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