Spain's third-place finish in the recently finished Confederations Cup deserves an analysis beyond the shallow "we only lost one match in the competition, we'll be fine for the World Cup" that most Spanish media displayed on Monday, after Spain narrowly defeated South Africa 3-2 on Sunday.
Nothing is easier than putting together a list of excuses to justify the disappointing result for the Spanish national team: a very long season, especially for the Barcelona treble-winning players; not very challenging rivals in the group stage; a tournament that still has not built the reputation of a World Cup or a European Cup; two significant absentees from the line-up such as Andrés Iniesta and Marcos Senna; half of the team not knowing where they'll play next year...
However, those excuses would make sense for an established powerhouse such as Brazil or Italy. These are teams that have made a habit of winning and know that after any negative result they can pull themselves together in time for the next World Cup.
Despite their recent streaks of consecutive victories and undefeated matches, Spain still need to join the club of usual suspects that always make it to the final rounds of any tournament. This was a fantastic chance to work in the development of that winning routine, a chance surprisingly squandered by a group of players who initially appeared committed to doing exactly that.
Even if the Confederations Cup is obviously far from the prestige of a World Cup, it is still a contest organised by FIFA. This year's participants included the two most successful football teams in the history of international tournaments. Both Brazil and Italy, as well as the rest of squads, brought their best available players, therefore a win would have cemented La Fúria's recent success story and reinforced their candidacy for the 2010 World Cup title.
Before the beginning of the tournament, Vicente del Bosque compared the Confederations Cup (national teams) to the Toyota Cup (club teams): "If you win it, no one gives it any importance but if you don't, you will hear a lot. We want to keep winning and bring this Cup home".
His team did not show that understanding during their time in South Africa. Leaving off-days and "carajas" aside, those who followed the Spanish side last year in Austria and this year in South Africa perceive a different attitude from most players, especially outside of the official matches.
The high intensity of their training sessions, a trademark feature of this team since Luis Aragonés was at the helm, went down sharply after the first win against New Zealand, and was never recovered afterwards. As a consequence, ball movement and passing during matches was slower and more predictable than it was at Euro 2008.
Late into the night, post-match celebrations (yes, the team celebrated after every first phase win, and some players even had the questionable idea of hitting the bars after their defeat to the US), were far less contained than they had been last summer, which is usually not a good sign of focus and concentration.
Taking a holistic view of the tournament, we can pick just a handful of good news for the Spaniards: the consolidation of Albert Riera as a resourceful left winger, the varied and consistent options at centre back (Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Raúl Albiol and Carlos Marchena give Del Bosque plenty of alternatives), the contagious hunger of Daniel Güiza...
However, a few issues have been clearly exposed, starting with the weakness on the right flank. Sergio Ramos followed his erratic season with Real Madrid by displaying his lack of tactical discipline with the national team. The limited contribution from out-of-position Cesc Fábregas on the defensive end did not help either, and substitutes Álvaro Arbeloa and Santiago Cazorla made themselves no favours with mediocre showings whenever they were given the nod.
But the specific form of one player or another should not hide the larger issue at stake. Vicente del Bosque needs to recover the spirit of the Euro 2008 side if Spain realistically want to contend for the 2010 World Cup title. This is unquestionably a gifted generation of players and the only thing they lacked during this tournament was the same motivation, appetite and focus they showed last summer in Austria and Switzerland.
The defeat against the United States has given the Spanish gaffer a good data point to leverage whenever he needs to motivate his players in the future. But the fact is that this team wasted an amazing chance to consolidate their status as a title contender next year.
They will have to build the excitement back so that their supporters don't think another sensational collapse like those of 1998 or 2002 is just around the corner. And that is del Bosque's biggest challenge with the Spanish national team so far.