“Spain play few games outside the country because it is difficult to travel,” Angel Maria Villar said in April 2010, while announcing the agreement to play in Mexico City for La Roja's first post-World Cup friendly. The Spanish FA's President said not only had the Mexican counterparts been insistent on arranging the friendly, but he had also consulted the Spanish players who wanted to visit the ‘sister country’, as Villar put it.
So it was, that exactly one month after Andres Iniesta's last gasp goal in the final in Johannesburg to defeat Holland, the newly crowned World Champions were up against Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez – who scored the opening goal of the game – and company in Mexico. A late David Silva goal left the match at 1-1.
Since then, the Spain national team have become frequent flyers to the Americas, and with tonight’s friendly against Panama it becomes seven games from 17 to have taken Vicente del Bosque's squad across the Atlantic.
Rather than line up a competitive fixture closer to home, Spain have found, as the local media have all been eager to point out, 2.5m reasons to cross the ocean. Spain’s cachet, now with the Triple Crown, continues to soar. Sponsorship brought €24m into the federation’s accounts after the European Championship success. And while before the Euro 2012 victory there were football associations queuing up to pay €2m for one match, on the back of another major title, that figure has grown even more.
While a 4-1 defeat away to Argentina in Buenos Aires – the second friendly in the Americas after the 2010 World Cup – was viewed merely as a blip and something of an irrelevance, despite the result, the friendly in Puerto Rico, days before the Spanish championship kicked off in August of this year, was considerably more controversial. Atletico Madrid lost Juanfran Torres to an injury picked up in the game, whilst the timing of the match together with the nature of the opponent – wallowing around the 130 mark in the FIFA rankings – and not to mention the suffocating heat, infuriated the Spanish media.
For those countries hosting Spain, the view is somewhat different. Tonight’s fixture is part of Panama’s preparations for the 500th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific ocean to European eyes. Costa Rica also took Argentina – as well as Spain – to San Jose recently to build up the sport there, despite elevated ticket prices to see the games. And in Puerto Rico, while the Spanish media dismissed the game as a cash cow for their FA, for the local media it was a football fiesta and one that had raised the profile of football in the country. One paper on the island dedicated six pages to post-match analysis of the game.
And on a day when the country is on a nationwide strike in which the transmission of La Roja's match had been threatened, industrial action from the players is unlikely, even if they may prefer to avoid the long-haul flights in the middle of the week for a match against vastly inferior opposition. Having negotiated a collective deal for all players alike, they too are the beneficiaries of the increasingly-lucrative sponsorship deals and its win bonuses.