Desire key in Spain revival plans
For the Spanish national team right now it's a bit like that joke about the old fashioned English couple at the seaside. They see someone out in the ocean trying to attract their attention but they decide not to call the coastguard for help because, although he might be drowning, he may also only be waving and their innate 'Britishness' means they dare not risk the chagrin of rescuing him when he's only saying "hello." So they walk on.
So, are Spain waving or drowning? After the annihilation in the second half in the 5-1 defeat against Netherlands there has been nothing but positivity. No anger, no recrimination, a mass movement against looking for "culpables" [scapegoats] and pretty much a blanket of love thrown around goalkeeper Iker Casillas who had one of the more testing and less successful afternoons of his career.
The contrast with the World Cup four years ago is stark. Then, after losing to Switzerland 1-0 in the first game, there was naked tension, growling, a closing of ranks and bristling aggression -- against their critics, against the South African pitches and against their remaining two group rivals.
The anger was palpable; press conferences were full of spiky remarks; Vicente Del Bosque said that if he were reincarnated as a modern footballer he'd like it to be Sergio Busquets and an emergency cabinet meeting was held in the cricket pavilion of North Western University in Potchefstroom.
Back then, the Spain camp crackled with nerves and resolve. Right now the atmosphere is more karma than Krakatoa.
The players will tell you -- in fact they have told us here -- that it wouldn't matter if they were drinking Apple Schnapps, debating the meaning of The Brothers Karamazov while smoking cheroots and eating foie gras toasties, as long as they triumph in the next two games. Indeed, the phrase "must win" is the most used word combination since the final whistle went in Salvador.
The focus is on the future, but Spain insist they can learn from South Africa. "Sadly we went through this once before in South Africa but hopefully things will turn out the same way," said Fernando Torres of their eventual triumph. "It's an exaggeration to say that this generation has reached its end," added Xabi Alonso. "There's plenty of life in us and we've a lot still to say for ourselves."
The chance to do so comes against Chile on Wednesday and the only way to survive is to believe. "IF I make changes it'll be looking for football solutions NOT trying to signal someone's fault for the defeat," were the words of coach Vicente Del Bosque, while Sergio Ramos asserted: "We aren't home yet! There's more pride, determination, self-belief and grit than ever before. We wish that we could play Chile right away."
Obviously, these are the correct sentiments. Whether or not they are waving or drowning is based on whether all the players believe, wholeheartedly, in what they are all saying.
If they do, then there's still a firm chance that they can avoid the fate of France in 2002, Greece in 2008 and Italy in 2010 -- departing in the group stage despite being reigning champion. But while training has been crisp, honest and encouraging, there's still a feeling that Spain is a butterfly yet to emerge from its cocoon.
Watching Netherlands prise open and then ram through Spain's tactical set up in the second half, while the disorganised La Roja didn't react, was like watching a team with five weeks' pre-season training under its belt against one that has only been around for five days.
But there was a direct lesson for Spain to learn from the Dutch. Unquestionably there was pent up rage in that performance -- from Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder's lightening fast attacks and passion, to Robin van Persie's tigerish tackles on Pedro -- this had the word "revenge" stamped all over it. Robben may have denied it after the game, but Netherlands drew power from the pain of 2010.
Spain need to recognise and harness that same force now. They were humiliated in Salvador, they have been pilloried by the world's media and they'll be distraught if they are mathematically on the plane home by the end of Wednesday [a reality if they lose to Chile and Brazil win or draw].
Anger can be utlitised as energy and, while it's quite clear that Spain's key players are not at the top of their game right now, there was sufficient evidence in the first half against Netherlands -- particularly when David Silva had a chance to make it 2-0 -- to indicate that if there is more attention to detail and quicker use of the ball then they are more than capable of beating the Chileans.
"Chile play almost all their games the same way: Intense, aggressive and 'going' for it rather than playing speculatively," said Alonso. "We've faced each other regularly over the last few years and they'll be trying to show that they've got our measure. But they have weaknesses, we know that, and it's a case of ensuring that we take advantage of them."
Behind it all, trying to make it happen, there's the Marquis. Del Bosque has some fine-tuning to do and needs to make one or two changes to freshen the side and also avoid any collective psychological damage affecting their previous performance. David Villa, based on his training ground form, should be one to come in.
The last time Spain led and then lost in any competition or friendly was over 80 games ago -- at Windsor Park when Northern Ireland defeated them 3-2 in 2006. That was the night which sparked a revolution -- no more Raul, no more Michel Salgado, no more Santiago Canizares; Casillas was made captain, Xavi installed as the on-pitch boss and emphasis was placed on Andres Iniesta, while the permanent pairing of 'The Kids' -- El Nino [Torres] and El Guaje [Villa] -- was put into action.
That degree of change is illogical to expect, but it seems deeply significant that this is the first time since then that Spain have been incapable of capitalising on a lead. Del Bosque, shrewdly, called an extra press conference on Saturday striving to get over the "business as usual" message and, as in South Africa, trying to ensure that there was no interview vacuum into which vituperative columnists could dive. Quotes will always lead to healthier, more balanced headlines and front pages than silence when times are hard.
Del Bosque may have smiled, talked tolerantly and said intelligent things. Yet he also added: "I might look calm and in a decent mood but, inside, I'm pretty pissed off."
If Spain hated the taste of defeat then they remain rivals for any team at this World Cup. If the sang-froid of the last couple of days masks shaken confidence and aching tiredness then they are in big trouble.