World Cup 2014: Vicente Del Bosque - cool, calm and chasing No 4 with Spain

Wily coach has spent his career overcoming hurdles. Now he must work out how to nurse ageing stars to Spain’s fourth straight title

Wherever you rate Vicente del Bosque in the pantheon of all-time great managers, he is unique in having won two Champions Leagues, a European Championship and the World Cup. But the 63-year-old Salamancan does not care for any “who’s the best?” parlour game. He is made of different stuff.

As a midfielder with Real Madrid, Del Bosque exuded all the elegance and assuredness with the ball that Guti later made his trademark at that club, but with some of the positional awareness and organisation which make Sergio Busquets the motor of the current Spain team.

As a man he transmits calm and content – happy in his skin as much as happy to have achieved great things. These natural tendencies mask the fact that all those landmark triumphs in both his club and international careers have been fraught with difficulty and danger.

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Del Bosque’s first Champions League win, a Steve McManaman-inspired 3-0 victory over Valencia in Paris in 2000, caused the uncomfortable situation of the short-term caretaker coach having to be retained by the brash new multimillionaire president Florentino Perez, who had intended to appoint someone  like Arsène Wenger or Fabio Capello. The two men made uncomfortable bedfellows.

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The 2002 triumph at Hampden came after Del Bosque dropped goalkeeper Iker Casillas and the team finished the league season by losing three of their last five games. Only when “Saint” Iker was introduced for the injured Cesar did Real desperately clear their lines in an Alamo-like finish against Dimitar Berbatov’s Bayer Leverkusen. The image of Zinedine Zidane’s spectacular goal may still linger in the memories of neutrals, but Madridistas recall the blood, sweat and tears of those final 22 minutes.

 

Twelve months later, Del Bosque was callously dismissed, a couple of days after winning the Spanish title. After a season in Turkey with Besiktas, he took the reins of Spain in 2008. His first challenge was the World Cup of 2010 and there were two very different, but very clear hurdles to overcome, aside from beating the best on the planet.

To inherit from Luis Aragones was a gently uncomfortable task. Spain thrilled the world with their brand of football in winning the 2008 European Championship, broke through the glass ceiling which had held them at the quarter-final stage of so many major tournaments, and suddenly were under pressure to graduate to world domination.

Then, once in South Africa, Spain lost their first match – to lowly Switzerland. No team had ever been defeated in game one and then won the lot. Talk to any of that squad, serial winners all, and they will admit they had never felt so tense or fearful.

Spain won the UEFA EURO 2012 trophy Spain won the UEFA EURO 2012 trophy  

By comparison, perhaps Euro 2012 had more commonplace challenges, but the poisoning of internal squad relationships threatened to stunt Spain’s growing ambitions before the tournament even started. Jose Mourinho’s scorched-earth policy in the Clasico wars of 2010-2012 caused players who had stood shoulder-to-shoulder to begin kicking each other in the shins. It took peace summits and an increasingly disciplinarian tone from an otherwise liberal manager to lance the boil, but they were sufficient to bring the third part of that historic hat-trick.

Now here is the Marquis Del Bosque, ennobled because of his achievements, facing a whole new set of challenges. The first is intriguing. Even though he is very close to having introduced 60 new players to La Roja since assuming command in 2008, this is the first tournament at which he will be obliged to dip into el relevo – the “relief watch”, the troops who take over from those drained by extended frontline duty.

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There has been significant natural wastage since the last World Cup. Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevila, Carlos Marchena, Victor Valdes, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jesus Navas and Fernando Llorente are all missing this time.

Still more important for Del Bosque is how to manage the resources left in two vital pillars of the midfield. Xavi is 34 and Xabi Alonso 32. Neither number automatically signifies that they cannot return Spain to glory in Brazil. Andrea Pirlo was 33 when he drove Italy to the Euro 2012 final; Zidane and Claude Makélélé were both 33 in contesting the World Cup final eight years ago, Lilian Thuram 34 and winners Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi on the point of turning 33. Those tournaments, however, were in Europe. Last summer’s Confederations Cup proved to Del Bosque that the combination of brutal humidity in the north, stamina-sapping distances to be travelled and depressing standards of logistics mean squad husbandry will be key in Brazil.

Just one wrong decision not to rest an exhausted 30-something could allow a lesser team, with greater youth and athleticism, to undo the world champions. Del Bosque said: “There’s a lot left in the central players who won the last couple of tournaments and we don’t have too many players who are already over 30. Nor will we abandon our trademark style of play. It has taken us this far and it is a philosophy we will defend to the death.

“We have some interesting and talented younger players who will be able to do the right job for us in Brazil, but I’m not going to say we’re going to win – that would be arrogant and foolhardy.

“Back in Spain, having been a nation which didn’t expect to get beyond the quarter-final, there is now this wave of both optimism and complacency that not only will we win, but we should win with ease and style. That is unrealistic.”

It is fascinating and there’s a nice little sliver of irony in the fact that back when Del Bosque suffered the worst blow of his 46-year career, being dismissed by Real in 2003, it was because the president and board did not trust him to find el relevo for a declining galactico squad.

As he faces the chance to retain the World Cup and extend Spain’s winning run to four straight major tournaments, it is that very skill, delicate and requiring extraordinary insight, which is his major challenge once more.

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