It doesn’t seem so long ago that, every four years, we’d find ourselves wondering why one of the greatest football nations on earth had never even come near to winning a World Cup. This same country produced two of the most famous football clubs in the world and they were fantastically successful as well, yet, though both clubs used foreign imports to bolster their teams, together they couldn’t put up a national team that even looked like grabbing any sexy silverware.
Of course, it’s Spain I’m talking about. For those who’ve only recently come to football-conciousness, it may come as a bit of a surprise to realise that, since the World Cup began back in 1930, Spain had never even played in a WC Final before last year.
It was the only nation of the European ‘Big Five’ that had never raised the trophy. In fact, fourth place in Switzerland in 1954 (when there were only sixteen teams in the tournament) was their best showing. Even when they hosted the competition in 1982, the Spanish couldn’t even make it to the knockout stages, coming bottom of Group B.
They weren’t much better in the European Championships either. Prior to 2008, they had but one title in the trophy cabinet, back in 1964 (though they were also beaten finalists in 1984). Even more strangely, the style of Spanish football ought to have brought them more reward.
Back in the day, it seemed easy to divide the football world (a much smaller one than today) into two, archetypal styles. There was the ‘Latino’ (Catholic) way of playing the game; exemplified by the Mediterranean countries and the best nations of South America; and the ‘Northern’ (Protestant) style, characteristic of the European countries who were without the advantage of a warm sea (and a mother goddess!) lapping at their shores. It’s not difficult to work out the stereotypes.
At the World Cup level, the Latinos regularly win more pots than the Northerners, though of course the ‘Protestants’ are a much smaller group. Out of eighteen WC competitions up to and including 2006, a Latino style nation has won fourteen and the Northerners only four (three for Germany and one for England). On this count, Spain should have been ‘well in’ decades ago.
As the world scratched its head and wondered why they weren’t, the most popular explanation was that ‘Spain just isn’t a ‘nation’; it’s a squabbling group of regions that each insist they possess their own national identities: Catalan, Basque, Andalusian, Castilian’ etc. Unlike Italy (it was argued) whose similarly fractured regions and city-states would come together to become ‘Italian’ for ninety minutes when the Azurri took the field, the Spanish nation just didn’t get behind their lads.
The selection of players was sometimes suspected to be the result of favours for one region over another too. The team itself had splits which militated against the cohesion required to win the big prize, it was said. There was a lot of political friction behind the scenes. If any of this were true (and some of it undoubtedly was), what’s happened recently to change everything? The short answer is one word: Barcelona.
The current Catalan outfit, for my money, has joined a very exclusive club: a group of only five teams witnessed in my lifetime that left ‘planet football’ behind and reached for the stars; and in so doing raised the bar and set the new template for the game going forward. Two of those five teams are now from Spain: Real Madrid (of the late fifties) and Barca today. (If you’re interested, the other three are, to my mind, Honved/Hungary (early fifties); Ajax (early seventies) and AC Milan (late eighties/early nineties.)
Spain play like Barcelona, and indeed the majority of its best national players are from that Club (just as was the case with Honved and Hungary). Watching Spain’s two recent games v Czech Republic and v Scotland, in terms of style, tactics and approach, you couldn’t slip a cigarette paper between the club and the national team. If you squinted your eyes a touch, you couldn’t tell whether it was club or country (with the wondrous David Silva even managing a pretty good version of Messi).
Both Barca and Spain are the best teams in their worlds by miles (though Bayern & Germany are looking very tasty these days). They are a joy to behold too (though I know the style they play doesn’t suite many traditional British fans). The Spaniards are at the top of the ice-clad mountain just now, in pure air, with the world and its ball at their feet. It’s very hard to stay long in that thin atmosphere; the pressure becomes tremendous, and they are deliciously vulnerable in defence. The top is the most dangerous place to be.
And the only way is down. Don’t be surprised if they win nothing next year.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.