With 85 minutes on the clock in Spain's final group game of the 2010 World Cup, the coach Vicente del Bosque turned to his assistant Toni Grande and asked: "Why aren't they attacking us?" Chile were 2-1 down but were playing out the remaining minutes. "Because they know they are through" replied Grande.
With Switzerland drawing 0-0 against Honduras in the other group game Chile could afford to lose by a single goal and qualify. They knew it; Del Bosque's assistant knew it; the head coach was clueless – just as he was when first asked about a rigged 2-2 draw tonight that would see both Croatia and Spain through and Italy out.
The odds on a 2-2 draw tumbled to 9-4 at the first mention of its potential but the plan is too convoluted and devious for the honorable Del Bosque to even consider – the honest man of Spanish football, who has just signed a new contract keeping him in charge until 2014, has principles.
The Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, found that out last year when he tried to give the World Cup winning coach who he had fired in 2003 the club's gold medal of honour. Del Bosque had graciously accepted almost 200 different awards – everything from the coveted Prince of Asturias to the Golden Turnip (awarded by the brotherhood of the friends of turnips no less) but this was one prize he would politely reject.
Perez sacked him weeks after he had won the league and just a season after he had won the Champions League, despite 80 percent of supporters wanting him to be kept on. Pinning a medal on his lapel was a desperately clumsy way of winning him back, but Del Bosque could not be bought.
"After 36 years on the firm, 11 of those as a player they did not treat me as you should an employee. But big companies are like that," he said. "Anyone who gets called useless and who is told they are not up to the job would feel hurt. I have my principles."
That show of integrity surprised no-one in Spain. Neither did the generosity of spirit shown when he auctioned the wristwatch he looked at nervously during the last 12 minutes of that World Cup final for €24,000 so the money could go to Madrid Down's Syndrome Foundation. The picture of his son Alvaro, who has Down's Syndrome, lifting the World Cup above his head after the tournament is one of the enduring images of the celebrations.
That inclination to always do the honourable thing and to do so without agenda or ulterior motive is what sets Del Bosque apart and it has helped him manage a squad full of superstars, forever divided down Real Madrid-Barcelona lines.
Midfielder Xavi Hernandez recently summed up the difficulty of being Spain coach when he said: "Combining the talents is not the problem; it's combining the egos," and Del Bosque has done that since taking over from Luis Aragones in 2008.
When David Silva's father complained last year: "What does my boy have to do to get picked?", he might have started a war with Aragones, but Del Bosque's response was more measured. "All players have egos," he said. "I know because I was a player." Silva has played 21 games since the World Cup finals and repaid his manager's faith with 10 goals in that time.
Del Bosque, a Spain midfielder capped 18 times but left out of the 1978 World Cup squad, has also managed squad selection brilliantly. He surprised people by leaving top Spanish La Liga scorer this season Roberto Soldado at home but two goals apiece from Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres have shown he knew goals would not be a problem. Both players have respected decisions to leave them out: the Chelsea man in the first game and the Barcelona midfielder in the second match.
With the help of a captain in both camps – Barcelona's Xavi and Real Madrid's Iker Casillas – Del Bosque has also slackened the wires pulled taught by the ill-tempered clasicos of the past two domestic seasons. But as the games get bigger, being left on the bench will become harder to take.
The fury expressed by Fabregas when he scored as a substitute against Ireland was maybe a sign of things to come but with Del Bosque players know that their club colours are never a factor. When he says he makes decisions "for the good of Spain" he means it.
He will have Spain's interest at heart again tonight and that is the other reason why stitching up Italy is not on the agenda. Spain feel that if their first game had gone on any longer they would have beaten Cesare Prandelli's team – there is nothing special to be gained by eliminating them. It would not be befitting the world champions and even less so their upstanding coach.Reuse content