Spain's Strange Reign Over Soccer

The championship-winning team is oddly disciplined on the field—and oddly undisciplined off of it. Will that combination work at the World Cup?
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Spain's Fernando Torres, left, celebrates after scoring against Bolivia during their friendly soccer match in Seville, on May 30, 2014. ( Miguel Angel Morenatti/AP Photo )

When Spain made history on July 1, 2012, winning their third straight major tournament, there was no rock ’n’ roll hedonism, no spraying of alcohol, no nightclub celebrations—not even the stealing of the goal nets. In the relatively modest dressing room at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, Fernando Torres carried his daughter Nora in his arms—far more interested in her than the trophy he’d just helped win with a goal and an assist in the final against Italy.

Victor Valdés, the Barça goalkeeper who’s often portrayed as an overly intense, saturnine loner, did one of those granddad tricks where you bend your thumb and slide it along the side of your hand to make it look as if it has come off altogether. Torres junior and senior both loved it.

Vicente del Bosque’s son, Álvaro, who has Down syndrome, is a total soccer fanatic and utterly devoted to Xavi. He wandered around the dressing room enchanted to be with his heroes. Every player had a hug, a kind word, a joke, even an extended chat for him. He was the purest representation of what their country has felt about them over these last four winning years: sheer, unsullied joy.

My cameraman and I were the only crew allowed into Spain’s inner sanctum as the players streamed back in following their blue-ribbon night, just as we were the only ones permitted in the dressing room at Soccer City in Johannesburg when La Roja became world champions. And while that July night in 2010 surprised me for its lack of raucous triumphalism, retaining the title two years later brought more revelation. Vicente del Bosque didn’t even go into the dressing room when the heir to the Spanish throne arrived. The two branches of royalty, soccer and state, saluted each other in the corridor, but the manager was quite happy talking to his wife, Trin, and leaving the shared glory to others.

Some of the younger players broke into a chorus or two of “Campeones, campeones oé, oé, oé ...” but most of the elite group treated this historic benchmark as just another day at the office. Iker Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos—all had an attitude that said, “Ok, job done, let’s get home and rest up for a couple of weeks because winning these things is what we do and there’ll soon enough be the World Cup.”

A sociologist in the room might have concluded that this was a sated generation, appetites diminished, hardly candidates for a fourth consecutive trophy. But whatever problems Spain may face in Brazil over the next few weeks, they won’t have to do with lack of hunger, pride, or desire to keep the winning era going.

“The celebration of that last tournament win was very different from the first in 2008,” Torres explained to me. “I guess everything’s special the first time. Vienna [1-0 win over Germany in the Euro final] was a dream. We’d never done anything like it, but we’d been searching for just that kind of achievement. The celebration was complete madness. None of us could believe it. The World Cup is the World Cup, but it was won very far from Spain. Winning that final was impressive as an experience, but it was different from the Euro. It was like: ‘Come on, come on, the plane’s gonna be leaving.’

“Euro 2012? Well, I’d say that we expected to win it. In fact winning was the only thing we could do. And while there was immense happiness at having made history, it was a much more ‘family’ experience. Four years previously we’d very few kids between us, but by 2012 almost all of us did. We were together for a month in a hotel, new friendships were made, wives and kids spent a lot of time together, and when we won we wanted everyone, the whole big family, to be together immediately—enjoying it, savoring it, and giving the kids this memory of what their dads had done.

“It was also different because we’d all changed from being hungry youngsters in Vienna to mature hard-nosed professionals used to the demands of winning all the time. It had been the journey from learning how to win to being accustomed to winning and the way to achieve it.”

So, if I had the chance to take that imaginary sociologist aside for a word of explanation in Kiev, this is what I’d have said: “Spain does things differently.” To begin the breakthrough years, the Spanish FA hired a guy of pensionable age who had to abandon a handful of high-profile club jobs because of his recurring attacks of anxiety and panic. Luis Aragonés was also the man who staunchly believed in direct, aggressive, all-action soccer—who didn’t want to lose the “fury” from La Furia Roja.

Paradoxically, this was the man who instilled the pass and move, who gave the keys to the kingdom to little bundles of genius like David Silva, Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc Fàbre-gas, and who started this golden reign. And who—despite his background of psychological stress—took on almost the entire Spanish football community (and won) over his belief that Real Madrid legend and national captain, Raúl, had to be excommunicated.

Then Spain hired as their overall soccer guru the visionary to guide the development of the national team as a world power, a 38-year-old with no previous managerial experience—former Madrid captain Fernando Hierro. A professorial job given to a freshman! His choice to replace Aragonés after the 2008 European Championships was a guy who had precisely four years of senior managerial experience and who’d been out of work for the previous three seasons.

See what I mean by “different”?

Kudos to Spanish Federation President Ángel Villar for judging from afar that when Real Madrid booted Vicente del Bosque out the day after clinching the 2003 La Liga title, saying that his coaching style was outdated. They were talking rubbish. He’s now the first ever Marquis del Bosque, champion of both Europe and the world and leader of a Spanish squad that just might retain its crown—however slim the odds that history might suggest.

The majority of national associations would have considered Aragonés too anarchic. Hierro, to many conservative eyes, might have seemed a young whippersnapper not in possession of the gravitas or the experience to oversee the complex football laboratory into which Spain’s soccer fields have developed. By the time Aragonés left, del Bosque could have been seen as out of touch, too removed from Spanish football, having finished his last work there five years previously.

But after decades of having been mocked by the world for their “glass jaw” and inability to shuck the “nearly man” tag, Spain was by now determined to continue sticking up two fingers to everyone else: Different or not, we do it our way.

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Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter is a journalist based in Barcelona. He has written for Sky Sports and the BBC.

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