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Thursday November 22 2018
Under-21s show the way for Spain’s national team

Spain’s first team are suffering but – despite some questionable moves from a new regime – their woes should only be temporary, writes Rob Hemingway.

If the performance of Spain’s flagship national side is considered the barometer for its footballing fortunes, then things don’t currently look too rosy for La Roja.

After elimination in the Round of 16 in Russia, the senior squad will now spend next summer on the beach having failed to qualify for the inaugural Nations League finals. However is this representative of an overall decline in one of the game’s global powers, or rather a combination of short-term errors and misfortune?

Looking under the surface at the Spanish national youth teams, the latter would seem the more likely answer.

La Rojita (Spain’s Under-21 side) in particular have been on an unprecedented run of success, losing only three times in 35 matches since March 2015, culminating latterly with their qualification for the Under-21 European Championships next summer. This is testament to the academies continuing to churn out talent, and with a strong pipeline of graduates moving upwards – Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos to name but two – there is a clear pathway for others to follow and aspire to.

Indeed, given the similar trajectory of players such as Borja Mayoral and Mikel Oyarzabal – the latter already capped at senior level – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them receive more call-ups to Luis Enrique’s group next year.

A changing dynamic over recent youth cohorts has been an increasing reliance on individuals from multiple clubs, as opposed to the hitherto prevalence of Barcelona and Real Madrid players. Much of the success during the country’s 2008-2012 golden period was due to the telepathic understanding between the team’s club-orientated ‘mini-units’. What overall effect this will have on the senior side – where this trend is gradually coming into view – remains to be seen, with the latest squad for the fixtures against Bosnia and Croatia including only five representatives in total from Spain’s historic duopoly.

A factor that should mitigate against this is the consistency of coaching personnel throughout the Spanish set-up. Recent events have however put this stability under threat.

Many of these have been driven by the man at the helm of the RFEF, Luis Rubiales. An uncompromising and tenacious defender in his playing career, he has brought these characteristics and more to his role at the head of the Spanish federation since being appointed in May.

Ditching Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup – more about principle than the good of the team – and his approach to this decision had repercussions elsewhere in the national hierarchy. Albert Celades left his post as Under-21 coach and in an interview with Onda Cero shortly after doing so, laid bare some of his concerns, including the lack of communication from above.

“Rubiales did not talk to me about Lopetegui, it was a sad and very strange situation”, he said, which was even stranger considering he was acting as Lopetegui’s assistant at the tournament.

“I think I would’ve continued on, what happened in Russia was a key factor in making this decision.”

Rubiales has also directed heated rhetoric towards Javier Tebas, the La Liga chief, for his approach to the proposed La Liga fixture in the US, ironically about his lack of communication.

All of which has some questioning whether the Canary Islander has the appropriate skillset for the role.

Rubiales’ father once said of his son: “When he’s made up his mind about something no one can convince him otherwise.” With leagues and federations increasingly intertwined in the modern game and success often a result of compromises between these and many other bodies, one wonders how this will work out for the RFEF. Will it succeed in having more influence on the game’s biggest upcoming decisions, or will Rubiales’ approach have the opposite effect?

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