Spain’s bizarre preparation for the European Championships that saw nine of the squad that will travel to Poland play in the Copa del Rey final 20 hours before the world champions’ first warm-up friendly was rightly derided both inside the country itself and particularly from those on the outside looking in.
The oft-used phrase ‘a League played geniuses, run by idiots’ was highly appropriate, but even with this logistical disruption drawing criticism, there were some who benefited.
Vicente del Bosque decided to still name a 23-man squad for the friendly matches against Serbia and South Korea by including seven uncapped players. Juanfran, Adrian Lopez and Alvaro Dominguez’s inclusion was representative of Atletico Madrid’s strong finish to the season, David de Gea and Isco were drafted in before heading off with the Under-21s, whilst Javi Garcia was also rewarded for a good campaign at Benfica.
However, the one player who really made a mark on the public’s consciousness was Benat Etxebarria. The Real Betis playmaker’s evolution into the senior side is an unusual one for this current crop of Spaniards. Unlike the others brought in, he hasn’t been a staple at the under-age tournaments where Spain have recently groomed a highly talented new generation to take over from those that have brought success on the European and world stage in recent years.
Indeed, 2011-12 was only the 25-year-old’s first full season in the Primera Division, having worked his way through the club’s B team to play a key part in the previous campaign’s promotion to the top flight. That Benat had to take this route was for an original failure on the pitch to build on his breakthrough as a youngster at Athletic Bilbao.
That he impressed greatly in both friendlies for Del Bosque was no surprise to those who have watched his development throughout the last campaign. His assists for the opening goal in both matches illustrated his fantastic range of passing from a position as a deep-lying playmaker, one that is complemented by his fantastic delivery from set-pieces. His is a particular dead-ball talent that will land him forever in Betis folklore for the two free-kicks that defeated Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan towards the end of the season.
However, it is a combination of abilities that had many calling for his inclusion in the Euros’ final 23, as a possible replacement for Xabi Alonso, should a gruelling season take its toll on the Real Madrid man. For all the abundance of talent in the Spanish midfield, many of those included such as David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas offer similar attributes. Alonso’s skill-set however is far different.
Benat’s call-up was the first for a Betis player to La Seleccion for four years, yet that pride may be outweighed by questions regarding where his future lies.
Rumours had already abounded that a return to Athletic is in the offing, his atheistically pleasing style is certainly more suited to Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao than it was to those of previous Coaches and investment in the playing squad was one of the conditions reportedly imposed by the Argentine on the Athletic board before he renewed his contract for the coming season.
The reactionary tendencies of the Madrid Press even saw calls for Real Madrid to snap him up as the same Alonso insurance policy that he could have been used for at the Euros, but he need only look to last season’s Bundesliga player of the year – yes, Nuri Sahin really was that good – to know that would be very much the wrong move.
Instead, he may be best served to stay where he is. Betis failed to win any of the eight games in which he didn’t start this season and his influence and popularity on the green and white half of Seville is undoubted.
Should he back-up a stellar debut season in La Liga with another year of consistent performances, more calls to the Seleccion will not be far away and, come the dawn of the next major tournament when Spain put their world crown on the line in two years, he may well be ready to step into Alonso’s substantial shoes.