No rain on Spain's passing parade
A World Cup title book-ended by two European championships. And they pass a football more expertly than any international team in history. As far as they are concerned, the only thing their critics pass expertly is wind.
During their Uefa semifinal on Wednesday night, the Spanish met with sterner resistance than they have encountered since their loss to Switzerland in 2010. Paulo Bento’s Portuguese were ferociously committed and impressively skilled in disrupting the rhythm and composure of Vicente del Bosque’s machine. For the first time in yonks, Spain’s possession ratio hovered at about 50% for long stretches. And the Ukrainian crowd seemed to unsettle the champions a bit with their heckling of sedate play. Had Cristiano Ronaldo not arrived in Donetsk craving victory too much, the Spanish adventure would be over now. But it is not.
Maybe the durability of Spain’s project has something to do with never craving victory too much. Their brains do not overheat with patriotic zeal. As an awkward marriage between two overlapping nations – Spain and Catalonia – and two archrival clubs, this team cannot even bring itself to sing the anthem of the kingdom it nominally represents. But whatever their feelings about Spain as a cause, the players clearly like each other as people. Unfortunately, the affection is not shared by many neutral viewers around the world. Spain have a nagging charisma deficit to rival their national debt.
This month, millions of Euro 2012 viewers in South Africa have been afflicted by “Spain drain” – a mild state of mental and emotional fatigue induced by watching “La Furia Roja” at work. Symptoms include drowsiness, glazed eyes and an urge to channel-hop to CBeebies in search of some drama.
For many, the Spanish have become to football what the Germans have become to Europe: control freaks dedicated to curbing the joy of others. Part of their image problem is that they lack the dramatic flaws that distinguish mere brilliance from greatness. Spain can seem two-dimensional in their excellence: pedantically perceptive, tediously temperate, gratuitously grown-up. It is hard to love a group of players who never lose their rag.
If they do prevail on Sunday night, it is highly unlikely they will be remembered by neutrals as reverently in decades to come as the Brazilian class of 1982, or the Dutch of 1974 and 1978. And the missing ingredient is not just the appeal of appeal of gallant failure. You can add Brazil’s World Cup winners of 1970, Maradona’s Argentina of 1986, Zinedine Zidane’s France of 1998 and even Marco van Basten’s European champions of 1988 to the lineage of great national teams who had more charm than this Spanish generation.
It does not help that La Rioja’s dominant personality is Xavi “Robert Downey Junior” Hernandez, an obsessively precise craftsman who lacks the appetite for risk that defined the artistry of Maradona, Zidane or Johan Cruyff. Xavi is the sadistic motherboard of the tiki-taka computer.
Many of his countless decisions are profitably negative: calculated to deny the opponent the ball. His pitiless flood of passes can be as oppressive as it is impressive. Every 100th pass he makes is a delightfully weighted through-ball. But the 99 passes before and after it threaten to hypnotise the onlooker into a state of catatonic indifference.
Alongside him are mercurial individual talents in Andres Iniesta and David Silva, but there is an inescapable blandness to the personalities of both attackers. They have all the presence of IT-support technicians. The only Spanish star with bit of edge is the slightly unhinged defender Sergio Ramos, whose “Panenka” penalty on Wednesday was a defiantly maverick moment.
Former Argentina midfielder and Real Madrid director of football Jorge Valdano once drew a contrast between right-wing football (cautious, cynical, thuggish) and left-wing football (expressive, spontaneous, proletarian).
It seems Spain (and Barcelona) have invented an unexpected new strain of right-wing football: one that is authoritarian in its pursuit of the near-elimination of needless error. Without the radical improvisation of Leo Messi, the Barcelona style, as practised by Spain, becomes weirdly conservative, despite its relentless flow of attacks.
And it does not matter that Barcelona FC has been a left-wing club since the Spanish Civil War. That political stance has long been undermined by the rampant commercialisation of the Barça brand, not least the lucrative sale of the once-sacrosanct team shirt to the Qatar Foundation.
Spain and Barcelona have made football more meritocratic by reducing its tolerance for rough play. This is a mixed blessing. The game is safer and prettier, but there is less appreciation for proper tackling as a virtue in itself. A clean sliding tackle is now a scorned, endangered feat, often deemed a foul simply because it would have been a foul had it been mistimed. Mid-air collisions are now often assumed to be fouls for no good reason – it is simply a race to see who demonstrates his agony first.
Skilful and desperate defending can still thwart the Barcelona-Spain formula once in a while, as Chelsea showed in this year’s Champions League semifinal. But that was a freak event, not a repeatable pattern. Barcelona will be back with a vengeance. They will not lose their powers with the exit of Pep Guardiola.
It is up to the strongest vassals of the Spanish empire – German, Brazilian, Italian, Dutch, French, Argentinian – to seize the palace by inventing a sustainable, credible counterstyle. The revolution might be televised on Sunday night. But do not get your hopes up.