Vicente del Bosque: So, how good is it to be the Spain coach?
Vicente del Bosque opens up to Henry Swarbrick on what it's like to manage the world champions, the threat from England at the Euros and why he had to drop Torres
Monday 27 February 2012
No manager, no captain and 46 years without a final appearance, let alone a trophy, means England will enter this summer's European Championship with the continent expecting even less than normal from the perennial underachievers.
English clubs' performances in Europe may have been disappointing this season but only by standards which have long belied the lack of success for the national team.
Fabio Capello's resignation over the Football Association's decision to strip John Terry of the captaincy has only added to the argument that England will again fail to reverse that trend. But if any country understands how quickly such a paradox can be overcome it is Spain, who for a decade were the only nation which could rival England's enigmatic status.
From 1996 to 2006, while this country was bemoaning the inability of the "Golden Generation" to perform on the international circuit, the Spanish mental block was even more profound.
In that period, their clubs collected 13 major European trophies to the Premier League's haul of seven, while their national team only once bettered the underperforming English in tournament play in six attempts. As recently as November 2006 came an ignominious 1-0 defeat to Romania in a friendly in Cadiz, their third defeat in three months. The other two were even more painful, to Northern Ireland and Sweden in Euro 2008 qualifiers.
Fast-forward six years and the Spanish are no longer wistful over a sole, fast-fading memory of silverware in the Sixties. They are instead looking to add to their European and world titles by becoming the first team to win three consecutive international trophies.
Considering the turnaround, it is no wonder then that their World Cup-winning coach, Vicente del Bosque, is wary of the threat contained by recently wounded sleeping giants.
"Teams like England and France are strong, powerful nations that need to win," he said. "They have the pressure that comes from countries rich in footballing history. It is seen as a negative when there are losses but sometimes it can spur you on. Things can come together, we know that ourselves.
"The world knows that England has enormous potential. It manifests with their successful clubs and with their individual talents. It has one of the strongest leagues in the world and they have some of the best players on the planet. Of course, along with ourselves, Holland and Germany look the strongest sides. Those two nations always do well in tournaments and I was impressed with both their qualification campaigns.
"However, it is important to realise that it is a short, strong tournament where all 16 teams can feasibly win. Germany, Holland and Spain will be the favourites statistically to win the tournament, we see those two as our biggest challengers. But because of the strength of European teams and the short format even the most perceivably weak teams can spring a surprise or even win the title. England is not one of these, they are one of the favourites in any tournament."
Flattering and the kind of comment that can easily be afforded by the coach of a team safe in the knowledge that their previous achievements have already afforded the tag of one of the greatest in international history.
The triumphs in the 2008 Euros and 2010 World Cup mean Spain will attempt to defend their title with high expectations, yet with a group of players who have nothing to prove.
However, former Real Madrid coach Del Bosque believes the elevated status of the team he inherited from Luis Aragones in 2008 carries a duty unique to every other side in the competition.
"No, it is not a case of there being no pressure," he said. "We have a deeper responsibility because of the fact we are world and European champions. Responsibility to the Spanish people, whose expectations have risen, and responsibility to respect our opponents by treating them seriously.
"Being the title defenders, it is important not to get into the mentality that it will be easy, that would be disrespectful. It is vital we do all we can do to become the first team to defend the European Championship.
"All of our opponents will be difficult, we respect all of them and they present different challenges. It is up to us to make sure we arrive into the tournament timing our form well and ready to play well from the off.
"Our group is very difficult. Everyone knows the threat Italy pose, Croatia are tricky opponents and Ireland have a strong personality, character and an excellent team regardless of the experience of their manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
"They will be a complicated team; we know how strong they are because of how well they got through their playoff [beating Estonia 5-1 on aggregate]."
Spain's own qualification for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine was faultless but they have since stumbled to a Wembley friendly loss to England in November followed by a draw with Costa Rica three days later. But Wednesday's friendly against Venezuela in Malaga, then a game with China in Seville on 3 June and a third unconfirmed fixture will give them a chance to find form before a Euro opener against Italy.
Venezuela served as cannon fodder last June as Spain strolled to a 3-0 win but the absence of the man who opened the scoring that night in Puerto La Cruz, David Villa, leaves a void. The Barcelona striker, who is his country's all-time top scorer, is sidelined until late April with a broken leg and his long-time deputy Fernando Torres' form for Chelsea has been so poor that he has been dropped from Del Bosque's squad. "He is a lad we appreciate a great deal and it pains me to leave him out but I wanted to be fair," he said. "His performances recently have been a bit irregular."
The success of Villa and Torres in the last two tournaments – it is easy to forget the latter's winner secured Euro 2008 – means Del Bosque is reluctant to turn to alternatives such as Valencia's Roberto Soldado, whose excellent La Liga performances have finally earned him a first call-up since 2007.
But the 61-year-old is realistic enough to know Torres' record in west London – where he has only scored five times in 45 appearances since his £50m switch from Liverpool – has left him with little option. With Wednesday's match the last time Del Bosque will meet up with the players before he names his squad for the finals, on the face of it, it would seem certain Torres will miss this summer's tournament.
But in keeping with a personality cool enough to successfully placate the temperament of the Real Madrid galacticos and guide them to Champions League triumphs in 2000 and 2002, Del Bosque is not panicking over the form of a player he'd love to accommodate.
The former Spain midfielder also believes Chelsea's disappointing season – Andre Villas-Boas' side are fifth in the Premier League and trail 3-1 in their Champions League last-16 tie with Napoli – is having an adverse effect on the former Atletico Madrid forward.
"It is always a problem when a striker is not finding the net – it makes it difficult for them, we see that there is an issue," added Del Bosque.
"We have not been in contact with Fernando daily for a while but there is a lot of time and plenty of chances for him to find his touch before the Euros. It is not ideal with David Villa's very serious injury – though people around him think he will be ready to play some part for his club this season so that makes us hopeful.
"Every player is better off if his team is playing well and the system is working and it is a system they fit into. If things are going well at a club, it is a much better environment to be working in.
"We have watched Fernando at his new club and we see that he is fighting and that he is enthusiastic. We hope that in the next four months he can start scoring and we will make a decision on his position in the side based on how he does in that time. Things are not going well but situations can turn around quickly."
Spain only need to look back to 2006 to remember that.
Vicente del Bosque was speaking as a guest at an event hosted by The Instituto Cervantes, Spain's Official Cultural Centre and Language School in London. Find out about more events held by the Instituto Cervantes at www.londres.cervantes.es
Del Bosque on...
"Even the most weak teams can win the title. England is not one of these. They are one of the favourites in any tournament"
"He is a lad we appreciate a great deal and it pains me to leave him out but I wanted to be fair"
"Our group is very difficult. Everyone knows the threat Italy pose, Croatia are tricky opponents and Ireland have a strong personality, character and an excellent team"
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