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Jun 22, 2012

Del Bosque answers his critics

The day after Spain arrived at Euro 2012, I interviewed Spain's coach, Vicente Del Bosque, for UEFA. We get on well and he likes my sense of humor. He was waiting for me at the bar of the Mistral hotel where the reigning champion is training (it's about an hour and a half northwest of Gdansk, if you care about geographical and cultural referencing) and on the short wander between his table and our studio, I started a conversation about a mutual acquaintance who grew up in the neighborhood of the Spanish capital where Del Bosque was given a residence by Real Madrid when he was signed as a youngster. It's the Torrelaguna “barrio” where one of Spain's most famous boxers, Paulino Uzcudun, lived. His last bout was in Madison Square Garden in 1935 (two weeks before Christmas, against Joe Louis) and was the only knockout of his career. That was 15 years before Del Bosque was born, but as a youngster he was told about the fighter, his epic battles with Max Schmeling and, above all, a controversial defeat to the Italian Primo Carnera.

This time Del Bosque couldn't quite get Carnera's name right, and I was of no help, so he took me to his iPad to pore over Uzcudun's career, all the while sharing memories of films we'd seen of fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson.

A couple of weeks later, I saw Del Bosque give a pugilistic display at a news conference in Gniewino where, without swinging haymakers, without losing his temper, he jabbed and cut at some foolish opponents. I was silently cheering.

La Roja is going to face France Saturday night in Donetsk in the quarterfinals, and to get there they've had to sweat and toil and roll up their sleeves. Where's the crime?

Massive chunks of their audience, both home and abroad, want Spain's progress to be swan-like -- long-necked elegance, gliding regally across the surface of the European championship, with no evidence of the little yellow feet paddling away furiously.

Me, I like little yellow, webbed feet. We all could do with developing an extra pair of them in our lives, given the current state of the world.

Group C leadership has been obtained while Spain has stayed thoroughly true to the terms of their franchise. They control the ball well, pass it well, continuously seek to win games, have individual talents to drool over and never reach for the cynical option.

We are four years beyond their most flair-filled triumph, and Spain has a slightly less cutting edge without David Villa, their all-time leading scorer, but Del Bosque has only ever promised that he'll maximize the ability at his disposal, play with honor and attack.

So from having fended off blows from a laudable Croatia side that played with attitude and intelligence (but let nobody forget its principal motif was to press and to stop Spain playing well, with a counter attack as a secondary task) to scoring a late, clever winner, to having to defend himself against a barrage of misplaced pessimism the following day was a long journey taken in a short time.

Many, many national teams would receive sage, appreciative analysis had they achieved parity with a lively Italy side (finishing the match distinctly on top), ripped Ireland apart and eliminated Croatia, who are nobody's mugs.

Not Spain.

The national media pummeled Del Bosque Tuesday morning: “National media polls are totally against your 'false' center forward tactic!” “Why no central striker after Torres went off?” “Isn't it time for Llorente?” “Why do you persist in playing with a double-pivot system in midfield -- it's not creative enough.”

I was unimpressed. These questions are fine, but they've been asked repeatedly the past year or so, and here we are again. Spain is ranked No. 1 in the world, it is a group winner, parts of its play is on the rise, it is missing its key striker. But the Spanish are scoring goals, and they are keeping clean sheets (6-1 was the for, and against, tally in Group C).

Del Bosque might be a man who prefers the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” approach, but it has brought him this far. He inspires loyalty, the players like him, they follow his instructions, he's developed an identity for Spain's play, which is slightly different from his predecessor's, and he has always been 100 percent open about this ideology.

His squad stands within three victories of achieving something no nation has managed in the history of organized football -- three consecutive titles at world or continental level -- and, personally, I think they'll do it.

That his media should examine him, quiz him -- fine. But that some of them should show so little faith, so little critical understanding of what he's doing when he's previously explained so clearly bemuses me.

“The reaction in the media to the Croatia win was so extreme that I watched the game all over again when I went back to the hotel in the small hours of the morning and now I've got a totally different view than all the judges who say we played so badly,” he argued on Tuesday morning.

“They had one big chance when Rakitic didn't score with a header and one other from Srna but that, largely, was the level of their threat. By contrast we had more possession, more chances on goal and in a game where we got bogged down we still won and played well in some parts.

“As far as the double-pivot system -- we've done quite well with it so far and I'm surprised there's such a climate of pessimism.”

I agree with him. One of Del Bosque's principal jobs here in Poland and Ukraine is fine-tuning.

He has taken a squad of guys who largely have been flogged into the ground not only by their clubs the past 12 months, but over the past four years of Spanish dominance and club and international level. The job that he and his fitness coach, Francisco Javier Minano, face is to take guys such as David Silva, Fernando Torres, Xavi and Sergio Busquets (who at various stages of this season have looked in need of significant rest) and squeeze a winning performance out of them in terms of mental and physical energy.

He also has made it very clear that the worst part of his job is perming from his resources and choosing a starting 11, which leaves players “who don't even know where the bench is” at club level out in the cold. How does he keep them motivated? How does he stop them muttering and moaning? How does he ensure they are pinpoint ready when that single moment, which might win the tournament, comes along.

From what I can see, Del Bosque is doing a damn fine job.

Whether La Roja kicks on in terms of crisp passing, better choice of options, increasing the proportion of chances they hit first time when near the penalty area -- these are factors that will determine Spain's place in the Donetsk semifinal, or a sad flight home.

But this is fine-tuning from a fine man, not questions that need the kind of chin-stroking, “open your mouth and let your belly rumble” overhauls that some of his media and supporter judges seem to think are appropriate.

I write this not with a red Spain shirt on. Del Bosque's players have firm respect for France and, to a degree, this is them full circle. One of the key foundation stones of the current era was laid when the Spain players were irate at the manner in which France eliminated them from World Cup 2006.

Whether you agree, I know that Spain thought that night that France (euphemistically) was more street smart. Players such as Puyol, Cesc, Villa, Alonso, Xavi and Casillas nurtured their fury and began to use it to good effect as they dominated the world for the next four years.

History tends to like neat, ironic, bookends. Were the Spain era to come to an end (in a quarterfinal, of all places, given their historic ability to fall at that hurdle) against France, there will be a lot of muttering -- about age, tiredness, a cycle coming to a poetic end. All that.

Perhaps Del Bosque will be questioned. My view is that Spain will win, and that so far the Marquis (who likes the Marquis of Queensbury) is doing a damn fine job. 

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