There is a fine new book by the Scottish journalist Graham Hunter charting the remarkable progress of the all-conquering Spain team that begins with the antagonism of the Euro 2008 qualification camp and charts the three tournament wins that ensued.
For the English reader, it is full of details and memories best gathered by an embedded, Spanish-speaking reporter. Like the chronicling of the campaign to get rid of Luis Aragones in 2008 because of his decision to drop Raul. “A clueless coach and a bunch of characterless players,” was the newspaper El Pais’s summary of the situation in September 2007.
Aragones is, of course, badly tainted by his offensive description of Thierry Henry. In terms of the team he built for Euro 2008, and the style he developed, he could not have been more right; nor his detractors more wrong.
What Hunter captures best – and I’m still racing through his book – is the camaraderie among this gifted bunch of players. He writes that the squad’s informal get-togethers during Euro 2008 were held in the suite of Joan Capdevila, who had been randomly assigned the biggest in the hotel. So big he found it unnerving and ended up asking Santi Cazorla to sleep in one of the adjoining bedrooms.
As an account of the greatest players in their nation’s football history, the Spanish football association (RFEF) should be very grateful to Hunter. Goodness knows, they need the help. Their decision to play a friendly on Saturday in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s worst offenders when it comes to human rights, is up there with some of the most wrong-headed decisions made by a sporting federation.
Whatever, you may ask, would the Spanish FA see in the oil-rich non-democratic former Spanish colony, where much of the population remain trapped in poverty, controlled by a famously wealthy elite? Assuming the same trend in factors influencing major football decisions in recent years, you would have to say that the clue is in the oil and the wealth.
The United Nations human development index claims that less than half the population of Equatorial Guinea has access to clean drinking water and that 20 per cent of children in the country die before the age of five. The pressure group Transparency International has placed Equatorial Guinea among the top 12 most corrupt states.
These are not issues that can simply be ignored when one is selecting the opposition for what is arguably the greatest international football team of all time. Although it is of much less importance, you also have to wonder about the value from a football perspective of the world champions playing the 119th-placed side in the Fifa rankings seven months before a World Cup finals. It finished 2-1 to Spain, who fielded a second string against a home team featuring many naturalised South Americans.
There might have been a shred of credibility to this sorry saga if the RFEF had at least acknowledged that this was a country, under the objectionable President Obiang, which had serious human rights issues. But, extraordinarily, Angel Villar, the RFEF president, refused even to discuss the situation in the build-up to the match.
“I am not going to answer that question,” he said when asked last week why Spain were playing there. “You have the right to ask it and I have the right not to answer it.” Three of the parties represented in the Spanish parliament asked for the game to be cancelled. The RFEF claimed it consulted the Spanish government. The government said it had nothing to do with the match.
The RFEF says that games against Angola and Gabon fell through and that they needed African opposition as a prelude to their friendly against South Africa in Johannesburg tomorrow. Gabon, who co-hosted last season’s African Cup of Nations with Equatorial Guinea, say there was no proposal to play a game. The RFEF claims that it will not receive a fee for playing in Equatorial Guinea. The country’s exiled leader Severo Moto claims the RFEF was paid €15m (£12.5m) for the game. What a mess.
It is not the policy of pressure groups such as Amnesty International to call for boycotts. If anything Amnesty believes high-profile sporting events in countries with poor human rights record can shine a light on abuses. That relies on those involved having the courage to speak out about what they encounter and not permitting their hosts to censor what they see of the lives of ordinary people.
A spokesman for Amnesty said last week that Spain should go to Equatorial Guinea with “their eyes wide open”. “Equatorial Guinea is rife with human rights problems. Political activists and government critics are routinely harassed and arbitrarily arrested and detained. Freedom of expression and of the press continue to be restricted.
“This game is a chance for some of Spain’s stars to show how brave they are willing to be. If the likes of Juan Mata, Alvaro Negredo and Santi Carzola chose to make a stand and used the opportunity to echo Amnesty’s concerns it could make a real difference to the thousands of people who are persecuted there. It would be very difficult for President Obiang to ignore the world champions.”
One has sympathies with the Spanish players and coaches who find themselves in an absurd situation not of their own making. They should not have been there in the first place. But as ever, it is they who are the public face of the team, and they who are forced to confront the difficult issues.
Predictably, the players will reason that with the defence of their World Cup on the horizon, they are best served by not rocking the boat. Vicente Del Bosque refused to discuss human rights on Saturday. “We are only sports people,” he said, “only footballers and we’re not here to give prestige, nor strengthen, nor overthrow, nor go against anyone.”
Funnily enough it was Villar who appointed Aragones and stood by him in spite of the hostility in the press when he left out Raul in Euro 2008 qualifying. That was the beginning of the unprecedented success that Del Bosque now presides over. It just goes to show how one good decision does not necessarily lead to another. On this occasion, Villar, the RFEF, Spanish football got it completely wrong.
One man’s game management is another’s cheating
It is interesting to hear Roy Hodgson encourage his England team to take a leaf out of Chile’s book and learn how to – and this is one of football’s great euphemisms – “take the sting out the game” when an opponent is in a period of ascendancy. “Breaking the game up” is another polite phrase for what is really a big dose of gamesmanship.
On Friday night at Wembley, Chile were excellent at slowing England down. Whether it was a judicious foul, too unremarkable for a booking, or an extended period of treatment for an injury, they did all they could. Many England managers before Hodgson have bemoaned their own players’ naïvety when it comes to this, and facing a World Cup in South America, there has rarely been a greater imperative.
But this is England, where going to ground too lightly is not tolerated under any circumstances, not even when a player draws contact.
Once again we want two incompatible qualities in our footballers. Ashley Young was grabbed by Markel Bergara when he won that now-notorious penalty against Real Sociedad but was later vilified. Was he being streetwise, in the way Hodgson is encouraging his players to be, or was he cheating?