Clemente joins the diplomatic service

Nicholas Harling sees the Spanish coach fend off an English inquisition
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The Independent Online
For every banal question asked of him yesterday, Javier Clemente had the perfect, immediate response, give or take the odd triviality lost in translation.

If he was not coach of the Spanish team which awaits England at Wembley this afternoon, Clemente would doubtless be a politician though not necessarily with Jose Maria Aznar's ruling party, the Partido Popular, as he fervently believes in the Partido Nacionalista Vasco, which is peculiar to the Basque country.

As a true Basque, Clemente retains the local wit, abrupt and dry, which utterly perplexed the attempts of the tabloids trying to stir things up a little more. Not content with the "Ten things that Spain gave the world - No 1: syphilis," the popular paper writers were clearly after more blood. Clemente was in no mood to help. "All we ask is for some respect. Anti- Spanish feeling is not good but maybe it's only been done to try to undermine my players," he said diplomatically.

Clemente, whose first game in charge of the national team was for the visit of Graham Taylor's experimental side to Santander in 1992, has clearly been in this particular game long enough to resist the temptations for rash replies. As platitude followed platitude, he tormented his pursuers. England, he said, have a "very complete team". The English game is one that he "loves and admires." Yawns were stifled as he went on: "If you do not try hard to win, it is useless to continue. The important thing is not to lose."

But there was still plenty of ammunition left. Or was there? Surely, between them, the controversial issues surrounding Nadal, Gazza and El Tel would provoke some reaction from within Clemente.

Miguel Angel Nadal has, after all, been described as the "avenging angel" and is, some would have us believe "the Beast of Barcelona." Suspended from two of his country's matches in the last World Cup finals and banned from the opening two in Euro 96, Nadal, according to Clemente, is certainly not the villain that has been portrayed. Conveniently overlooking the Majorcan's history of awful tackles, Clemente pointed out: "His last yellow card in the qualifying match against Macedonia was for handball. Does that make him a bad sportsman?"

Terry Venables, Clemente's opposite number today, had poured possible fuel on the Spanish fire by recalling the feuds they had in their time as coaches to Catalonia's top two clubs, Barcelona and Espanol. Clemente was having none of it. "We are rivals," he explained, "but my relationship with Terry is excellent. We have had dinner together."

That left Gascoigne. Would he have Gascoigne in his team, Clemente was asked. "Of course not," he replied as his interrogators at last sniffed a story. "He cannot play for Spain because he is not Spanish." In no way rebuffed, his questioner continued: "Supposing he was Spanish?" As quick as a Spanish mosquito avoiding the slap of an English tourist, Clemente said: "When he becomes Spanish I will be able to answer you."

The Romanian journalist, still incensed by Guillermo Amor's late winner for Spain on Tuesday which came while Daniel Prodan was lying pole-axed in the penalty area, did his utmost to join the fray. "I did not see the incident, so how can I comment?" replied Clemente, who said that his players' nerves would be calmed for the forthcoming challenge by a cup of good old Tila tea, which is normally used to soothe Spanish babies who overdo the crying.

"I will take the tea when I see you coming next time," he jokingly told another questioner. Alas, the tea is not, as the man from the Express ruefully discovered, included among the banned list of substances.

WHO'S WHO IN THE SPANISH TEAM

Andoni Zubizarreta (Valencia)

Age: 34. Caps: 109.

Veteran captain. Solid, dependable, good on crosses.

Juan Lopez (Atletico Madrid)

Age: 26. Caps: 8.

Fine attacking full-back.

Rafael Alkorta (Real Zaragoza)

Age: 28. Caps: 38.

Strong central defender, more skilful than he looks.

Abelardo (Barcelona)

Age: 28. Caps: 21.

Defensive hard man, excellent at set-pieces.

Sergi (Barcelona)

Age: 24. Caps: 21.

Strong left-sided defender.

Fernando Hierro (Real Madrid)

Age: 27. Caps: 44.

Tough midfielder with a lethal shot and 11 goals for Spain.

Miguel Angel Nadal (Barcelona)

Age: 29. Caps: 31.

Aggressive centre-back, known as the "Beast of Barcelona".

Jose Luis Caminero (Atletico Madrid) Age: 28. Caps: 21.

Energetic playmaker with a sharp turn of speed.

Jose Amavisca (Real Madrid) Age: 24. Caps: 12.

Left-sided forward, recently returned from injury.

Juan Antonio Pizzi (Tenerife) Age: 27. Caps: 13.

Opportunist goal poacher.

Guillermo Amor (Barcelona) Age: 28. Caps: 20.

Experienced defensive midfield player.

Luis Enrique (Barcelona)

Age: 26. Caps: 24.

Left-sided utility player.

Javier Manjarin (Deportivo La Coruna)

Age: 26. Caps: 8.

Skilful right-sided player, accurate crosser of the ball.

Kiko (Atletico Madrid)

Age: 24. Caps: 10.

Trying hard to re-establish himself in the side after falling out with coach Clemente, who said his work-rate fell below par.

Jorge Otero (Valencia)

Age: 27. Caps: 9.

Had a fine season in defence for the Spanish runners-up.

Alberto Belsue (Real Zaragoza) Age: 28. Caps 13.

Will dispute right-back position with Lopez.

Julen Guerrero (Athletic Bilbao)

Age: 22. Caps 24.

Creative midfield player with powerful shot.

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