Spain’s friendly folly

It’s a common complaint about modern football – what are international friendlies for? There’s a strong case to be made that they are what you make from them.

Many international Coaches use them to bed in new faces and work on tactical options. The big clubs see it as yet another demand on their players’ time, and club fans view them as a nuisance. If then, they are what you make of them, what are we to make of the latest RFEF junket to Africa?

If 119th-in-the-world Equatorial Guinea ranks highly at anything, then it’s all the wrong sort of things. While the 55 man official Spanish party stay at the swanky resort of Sipopo, the majority of the country’s population is on the breadline. In a recent report on governance standards in Africa, the former colony ranks 45th out of 52.

It’s hard to know what the RFEF gets from this, besides the obvious. The senior team has become a commodity much as Brazil did after entering their partnership with Nike back in the 1990s. But from a footballing point of view this match and next week’s against a South Africa side who’ve struggled to make a recent mark is hardly a challenge to befit the world and double European champions.

England are playing against Germany, for one. Spain haven’t met the Germans outside of a competitive tie in recent times, but it’s not just this latest game that begs questions of priorities. In the last four years Spain have faced England and Italy in friendlies, but the rest of the list – Panama, Venezuela twice, Puerto Rico, the Republic of Ireland in Miami, Uruguay in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Mexico away barely a month after claiming their world crown away – makes the mind boggle.

A lot of air miles, but not a lot of benefit. Already, there are worries that this might be taking its toll on the players. The last time Xavi had a summer off was 2011, where his club indulged in more of the same. Before that, you need to go back to 2007. Add to that all those long Champions League campaigns burdening a squad still heavily drawn from Real Madrid and Barcelona.

We’ve seen the fatigue at his club last spring when Bayern blew Xavi’s Barcelona away. He’s been excused duty on this occasion, and has been joined by the more recent dropouts, Cesc Fabregas and the controversially included Diego Costa. Del Bosque, then, will not even get to try out his newest toy.

It might well all work out. Certainly, there is little public sympathy for the plight of well-paid athletes. But there’s a limit on how many times you go to the well. Spain looked leggy against Italy in last summer’s Confederations Cup semi-final, and were dead on their feet by the time they met Brazil.

Only when they return to Brazil this summer will we know for sure. All eyes will be on them, and on the suits calling the shots.