Spain desperate to return home
With far too much time on their hands to reflect on their shocking World Cup elimination but obviously still unable to leave Brazil, the Spanish camp in Curitiba counts the seconds until the referee blows the final whistle of their last and meaningless fixture against Australia. Every single Spanish player and member of the staff look desperate to fly back home and forget about this painful experience, in which huge expectations shifted to immense disappointment in only two matches.
The atmosphere, already tense at the end of their defeat to Chile, grew heavier after Xabi Alonso stated that "maybe we didn't want it enough" in a postmatch interview. Some teammates felt outraged by the midfielder's explanation, as they thought that Alonso should only speak for himself, and that if he didn't want it enough, he should have stayed in Spain. A heavy story of controversy between the Real Madrid midfielder and some other players of the national team hardly helped to calm things down in Curitiba, even though Alonso was quick to reword his statement.
Things got worse following Cesc Fabregas' blatant lack of interest in Sunday's training session. His aloofness irritated the seemingly ever-Zen Vicente del Bosque, who told off the Spanish midfielder before reacting in his news conference, saying: "I care about each and every player on the team, while they only care about themselves."
Fabregas has complained bitterly about his lack of playing time in the wake of the Chile debacle and his behaviour over the weekend did not surprise many.
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The ugly fact now is that it's extremely hard to keep the focus on a competition that is over for the Spaniards. In the last few days, not only Fabregas but also most players have trained with an unprecedented lack of energy and motivation, as the previous jokes and positive vibes one used to watch in training sessions have turned into long faces, small groups of players speaking quietly in the corners and a general awkward feeling in the team's headquarters.
Among widespread rumours about del Bosque's future -- the Spanish FA wants him to lead the team's renovation, but he does not seem totally convinced -- the unavoidable decision of picking an 11-man team for Monday's match sounds ominous. While a sector of the Spanish media insists on playing most starters to show due respect to both the Socceroos and the tournament, common sense dictates that fresh blood should step on the Curitiba pitch, to give new players some World Cup experience and test their commitment to be part of the solution in upcoming competitions.
Javi Martinez and Koke, for instance, need as much playing time with the national team as they can possibly get, and Spain can only benefit from that. One other factor needs to be taken into account to choose a starting 11: This may very well be the last chance for several players who have performed well in the past to participate in a World Cup match for Spain. David Villa, for instance, might not wear the red shirt again, so del Bosque will have to take this into account. In an additional twist, many journalists believe Pepe Reina will almost certainly feature in a final cameo for the national team while Gerard Pique, who seemed bound to start, picked up an injury and won't be able to play, just like Xavi.
All those factors combined make it hard to predict who will start on Monday. One's best guess points at a mixed team that would blend new talent with a few players demanding recognition for the services rendered, something along the lines of: Pepe Reina, Juanfran, Raul Albiol, Javi Martinez, Cesar Azpilicueta, Koke, Sergio Busquets, Juan Mata, Andrés Iniesta (it would be his 100th match with the national team), Santi Cazorla and David Villa.
Already owners of a negative record-breaking performance by a World Cup titleholder -- elimination after only two matches -- Spain run the risk of contending for the wooden spoon of the tournament if they fail to defeat the lively Socceroos, a team that made both Chile and Netherlands sweat for a victory. Like former Argentinean player and manager Jorge Valdano once famously stated, football is a state of mind and judging by what we've been able to witness during these last few days in Curitiba, the Australians could have the upper hand in this match.
Their uplifting displays from the first two games coupled with their "nothing to lose" attitude meets the lowest-spirited Spain in years, in an almost noncompetitive fixture in which their only incentive is to avoid an even bigger fiasco.
Unless Spain's new blood find some hunger to put in an energetic display, this squad could go back home empty-handed; something unthinkable before the tournament started. It would be a very sad, inappropriate ending for what has clearly become the finish of a wonderful cycle.