The hotel lobby was packed with journalists in South Africa as the Confederations Cup semi-final drew closer. It was Vicente del Bosque’s first challenge as an international Coach and he was under the microscope like no other Spanish manager before him had been. Previously there were only a few who followed Spain at international tournaments but now the whole world was tuning in and those there noted something that seemed a little unusual. There was a calm air around the place, maybe a little too calm, and the criticism, which had already started before the tournament, was coming faster and faster.
Politics and football should never be mixed, goes the saying, but whoever penned that statement had never been to Spain. Admitting your support for La Roja was also a strong indicator to where your political allegiances lay. Before 2008, games at the Santiago Bernabeu saw tickets on sale for less than €10 but fans stayed away as there was a political stigma to the national side. Also very few were bothered. Even as Spain went to Euro 2008, back home not many believed in their chances of success. All that changed and with an exciting and attacking football style, all eyes were firmly on Spain to see if it had been just luck or if this side were ready to dominate on the international scene.
Suddenly everyone had an opinion and Spanish flags were hung from the windows of both right and left-wingers. Divisions, on the surface, appeared to be healed and the future looked very bright. The only problem was the man who had delivered success – Luis Aragones – was gone and Del Bosque was faced with the challenge of delivering the World Cup. There was no doubting his ability as a club Coach, but he had been out of work since 2005 and had no experience at international level. First up was the Confederations Cup and whilst for many it was seen as just a formality for Spain, things don’t always go according to plan.
Del Bosque had already started to receive criticism for his team selection and more came for the squad he picked for South Africa. He brought Diego Lopez over Victor Valdes, Marcos Senna had been discarded completely, uncapped Pablo Hernandez was also in the squad and there were eight players who had less than 10 caps and only two players who had scored more than 10 goals in the final 23 that flew to Africa. Del Bosque argued that this was an opportunity to test formations and give other players a chance but no-one was listening, Spain demanded a win and Del Bosque was expected to deliver.
It wasn’t just his squad selection that was raising eyebrows. As the Press waited around the team’s hotel lobby the day before the semi finals of the tournament, they were shocked. Players had already been caught coming back to the hotel after curfew and it appeared that the party after Austria was continuing in South Africa.
Some senior players, anonymously of course, admitted their concern about the lack of discipline to friends in the media. People who had never batted an eyelid towards the national team were suddenly experts and had opinions. Under Aragones there was no room for indiscipline, the rules were clear and a breach of them meant one thing, you were out, and the former Coach was not helping his successor with his own comments to the Press. However, Del Bosque seemed to believe that the players were mature men and that they were old enough to make their own decisions. The result was players staying out and partying. Senior players stood up and were counted and although it was too late in 2009, in the long run it was all worth it.
A year later Spain returned and won the World Cup and two years later, the European Championship again. The doubters have gone and the Coach is finally getting the recognition he deserves but on a personal level, Del Bosque will want to win in Brazil. The players are all on board too and so once again he sends his side into a tournament as favourites. He has already broken and rewritten all types of records since he took over the reigns from Aragones and a win in Brazil will see him once again make history, but winning this time will also finally help him to erase the only negative aspect during his time as national Coach. Few are betting against him.