Friday, 24 June 2011
Winning: Spain's happiest addiction
Winning, like many things in life, becomes a habit. It is one of life's more favourable addictions, but one that once engrained is as hard for opponents to shirk than any other destructive tendency.
Never was the evidence of a winning mentality so clearly displayed on the football pitch than when Adrián López stole in at the near post to equalise for the Spanish U-21s against Belarus in their European Championship semi-final on Wednesday. As the ball struck the back of the net the entire bench of substitutes, coaches and backroom staff galloped down the touchline to celebrate with the goalscorer. This side of established stars and promising youngsters had once again shown that the nation that used to promise much and deliver little now has an obsession with winning that would put Charlie Sheen to shame (well, one of many things).
Three years ago the Spanish national team won its first international trophy for 44 years. In that time since 2008 they have won a World Cup, the U-17 European Championships, reached the final of the U-19 Euros and are one of the favourites for the U-20 World Cup in Colombia this summer. On the club front, Barcelona have won two Champions League titles and Atlético Madrid won the 2010 Europa League and Super Cup.
Many of the players who have experienced that success have continued to shine in Denmark. Captain Javier Martínez and Juan Mata played in the World Cup last summer in South Africa. Martín Montoya, Thiago Alcântara, Jeffrén Suárez and Bojan Krkić have all played to varying degrees in Barcelona's first team this season and David De Gea and Álvaro Domínguez were part of the Atleti side to win their first European trophies in 38 years.
The lesson for those looking to follow in the Spanish footsteps is as easy to explain as it is hard to implement. Patience is a virtue. In many regions in a footballing context, it is obsolete.
The patience exemplified by the Spanish comes in two forms. Firstly within the game in the way they move the ball from side to side, constantly probing and looking for space. Adrián's equaliser on Wednesday came after a move of over 10 passes when in the dying moments of the game most sides would have opted for the hump it long strategy. Secondly, in the past decade Spanish sides have stuck to their tiki-taka style even when it hasn't been successful. In 2006 Spain lost to France in the last-16 of the World Cup but kept the same system, coach and players and two years later were European champions. In 2008 a Barcelona side containing Xavi, Iniesta and Messi lost the league to Real Madrid by 18 points. With some subtle changes implemented by Pep Guardiola in how they pressed the ball when they didn't have it, in 2009 they won six trophies. Tiki-taka was never questioned.
So what hope for the smaller nations such as ourselves who do not appear to have the attitude or ability to replicate the Spanish model?
Well, look no further than the Spaniard's opponents on Saturday evening in Aarhus. Switzerland have themselves over the past decade implemented a successful youth system that has produced a conveyor belt of talent for the senior national side. In 2009 they won the U-17 World Cup, with four of that side graduating to the squad that has played in Denmark. Of this squad, the wonderfully named, Innocent Emeghara, Admir Mehmedi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka all played in the senior side's 2-2 draw with England at Wembley earlier this month.
The emergence of these four players also highlights another interesting aspect of the Swiss youth system, the integration of the immigrant population into a symbol of national identity. All four were born outside Switzerland but have chosen to play for the country of their upbringing rather than their birthplace.
The Swiss may not provide the footballing lesson of the Spanish. But they do display a more realistic and socially positive action plan that should be noted in this country from Hampden to Holyrood.