Spain capitalizing on Barcelona’s success
FOXBOROUGH — There is no doubt that Spain has become the dominant force in world soccer, both at the club and national team level. Barcelona took the Champions League title in 2009 and again last week. La Roja won the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup.
The only question is, what took them so long?
Spanish soccer has long been an enigma. Real Madrid defined excellence in European competition in the 1950s and ’60s. But except for a 1964 European Nations Cup title, success at the club level seldom translated to the national team.
The simplest explanations were that club rivalries (unlikely) and regionalism (probable) worked against unity on the international stage. But if those are such significant factors, how could Italy have produced four World Cup championships?
More likely, Spain’s recent victories result from rallying around a unifying concept. And credit for that clearly points to Barcelona’s player development program, which has followed Johan Cruyff’s guidance since the ’90s.
The Spain team that will meet the US in an exhibition tomorrow at Gillette Stadium includes six Barcelona players. Normally, at least nine Barcelonistas are in the starting lineup, if you count Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, who started his career at Barcelona. But midfielder Xavi Hernandez (Achilles’) and defender Carles Puyol (knee) did not make the trip.
This match comes a week after Barcelona defeated Manchester United, 3-1, in London. And that was not just a victory, but a “paliza,’’ a thrashing of the Premier League champions. The match was at Wembley, but it was like a high-level training session at La Masia, the development center where Lionel Messi & Co. learned to play the Cruyff way.
So if Barcelona continues to go great, Spain’s national team should continue to win titles. Maybe things are that simple.
Certainly, Spain has long had enough talent to be victorious at the international level.
The only other time Spain competed in Foxborough was in the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup. Italy took a 2-1 victory over La Roja on an 88th-minute Roberto Baggio goal in a match the Spaniards recall for a vicious Mauro Tassotti elbow that broke the nose of Luis Enrique.
Spain was more than capable of winning that contest, which would have meant a very winnable date with Bulgaria and then an appearance in the title game in Pasadena. But, as in nearly every other tournament, Spain fell short.
Those who watched Spain in ’94 will not find this version much different. Even factoring in Barcelona, Cruyff, and La Masia, the futbol philosophy of the country has not changed drastically. Spain has sent strong technical teams to tournaments for decades. In the ’94 quarterfinals, the Spanish had extended periods of possession against Italy, a couple of times shredding a top-class defense (which held Brazil scoreless for 120 minutes in the final), only to have Julio Salinas squander chances.
Maybe it is the combination of a valid model plus persistence and fine-tuning that has made Spanish soccer the best in the world.
“It’s the philosophy — that’s the way football should be played,’’ said Revolution defender Didier Domi, who played two seasons with Espanyol in Barcelona. “That’s the intention, and they try to stick with it all the time and that’s why it’s beautiful. Sometimes they make mistakes, but that’s football.
“It takes time, but you have to keep with it. Remember, Barcelona were not playing like that, but then you have Cruyff and La Masia and they kept it going. They know each other, they know where to move, because of La Masia.’’
There have been tactical modifications, also. In ’94, coach Javier Clemente’s conservative nature was reflected in Spain lining up in a 5-4-1 setup with Enrique (now about to be named coach of AS Roma) up front. The 4-3-3 Barcelona and Spain have honed to perfection is a bolder approach.
“In France, we had a notion of playing wingers, and we had a result with that in the World Cup,’’ Domi said. “The wingers — guys like [Florent] Malouda or [Thierry] Henry — and one No. 10, [Zinedine] Zidane, it was perfect.
“Now it’s the time of Barca, and this is really the game. They have to stick with it — just play, and pressing when they don’t have the ball. Barcelona, that’s football. But the academy is the most important.’’
This two-game tour, which continues against Venezuela in Puerto La Cruz Tuesday, is worth at least five million euros to the Real Federation Espano de Futbol, and it is something like a victory lap. Spain has basically been relaxing since the World Cup final in Johannesburg last year, gearing up for important games and taking it easy in friendlies.
A 4-0 loss to Portugal was the most graphic example of a team functioning on after-burners and also a reflection of the change in philosophy. In the old days of the 5-4-1 alignment, Spain would not be so decisively defeated, even in a friendly. In the 4-3-3, though, things can go wrong if a couple of key cogs are missing or the opponent is highly motivated and intent on destruction.
The Spaniards are planning to stay focused.
“These games you treat like they were in any other month of the season,’’ said Chelsea striker Fernando Torres.
Both Xavi Alonso and Torres played for Spain in a 2008 friendly victory (1-0) over the US in Valladolid and in a 2-0 loss in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. The US provided a blueprint for dismantling the Maquina Roja, but Spain adjusted and won the World Cup, despite an over-the-top attempt at Dutch disruption in the title game.
“In these types of competitions, the margin for error is zero,’’ Alonso said. “In the Confederations, we did not have a good game and it was a good lesson for everyone. The expectation level after everything that happened is high. They are hoping to get a good result, but we hope it won’t happen again.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.