Five Spanish stories for 2013

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New year, new challenges. The football will be exquisite, and there’s a good chance that more European trophies will reside in Spain come May. But what will be the key storylines in 2013? Here are five. Not necessarily the top five, but a handful that not everyone is talking about when perhaps they should be. 

Just one more hoop to jump through 

At first glance it may seem a little churlish, but Spain, at least from the purist point of view, have one outstanding task at hand. 

Perhaps it’s a little contradictory for it to be me calling out for ‘more please’ from Vicente del Bosque and his squad given how easily riled I am when the boors and the ignoramuses criticise La Roja’s style of football or even whisper the ‘b’ word (Boring, but don’t be using it in my earshot). 

However, I think that the great match computer in the sky has triumphed again. 

Let me explain it this way. For those of you who prefer dry figures and computer printouts, there is no question — none at all — that this Spain era is the greatest in the history of international football. 

A number of teams has come close to the ‘triple crown’ of winning three straight tournaments — be that two continental crowns and the World Cup, or two of what was once called the Jules Rimet trophy and one continental crown.

I was lucky enough to tramp each long mile across Austria, South Africa, Poland and Ukraine, and in addition to what the record books say, I’d judge Spain to be the best, pound for pound, because of the vast number of different tests — climate, pitches, travel, quality of opponents, temperatures, and massed defences — which they faced. They have earned the phrase on the Spanish crest, Plus Ultra, further beyond — this era has known no boundaries. 

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However, it’s a quirk of fate that Spain has beaten all the great names at one time or another — France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England, Holland during the four and a half year stranglehold on world football — but not Brazil.

The initial groups have kept the hosts and the world champions apart but they are seeded to meet in the final. To Brazil, Spain remain upstarts and I promise they will reserve special effort and special intensity to the task of pulling their shorts down. For all of us, statisticians and football fanatics, it’s going to be intriguing to see how well La Roja handles the test. Time to put a golden-yellow ribbon on the trophies.

Perhaps the more important plebiscite at the Bernabeu doesn’t concern Iker and Jose 

Of course, during the first part of this new year the magnifying glasses will be trained on every glance, every raised eyebrow, every facial twitch through which the media, particularly Spanish television, can interpret the state of play between Jose Mourinho and Iker Casillas. 

I stated my view here on ESPN when Casillas was dropped that Mourinho, or any sane coach, MUST have the right to drop who he chooses to — so long as it is for purely football or disciplinary reasons, and not some other agenda. That Casillas was dropped for football reasons is risible. Discipline is something which only Mourinho can fully define. Truthfully, it was a move which smacked of an agenda — but the coach will stand or fall based on results. 

One of the major problems with all the contradictory and polemic things which Mourinho has been doing of late is that it moves the debate away from where, precisely, are Real Madrid are. Their title win last season was powerful, intelligent, remorseless, stylish and often thrilling. But their defence of it has been that of an eight-stone weakling. Not good enough.

Since he first came to power in 2000 until now — via a sprightly hiatus under Ramon Calderon — Perez has mixed the sublime and the ridiculous. There have been passages of absolutely transcendental play and decisions of clownish silliness. Exceptional, talented, dignified coaches have been tossed like trash — Jose Antonio Camacho, Vicente Del Bosque, Manuel Pellegrini — while very high quality footballers, Samuel E’too, Juan Mata, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have been discarded ludicrously early, cheaply or needlessly. 

Only recently, and Mourinho is on the verge of earning credit for this, are youth team products beginning to look like they might have a prolonged future in the first team. That’s because Perez has fostered an ideology that is about buying long and selling short. Nuts. 

This is not, under any circumstances, a personal attack. Some of Perez’s achievements, and those of his lieutenant, Jose Angel Sanchez, have been impressive — but they have not, in my view, had a consistent, clear, and well thought-out central ideology.

In the midst of a financial crisis, with Barcelona looking set to be, at least, competitive for the next few years, and with both Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo looking ready to haul up their caravans and move on — this is one hell of an important election for the mighty Real Madrid CF. 

It’s only rock ‘n roll, but they like it at the Camp Nou — yes they do… 

I have a particular regard for the Glimmer Twins of FC Barcelona — Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas just have to be the Mick and Keith of Catalan football. 

Two immense talents, full to the brim with energy, creativity and talent — but not shy of enjoying the full depth and colour of life. But this is the year when the childhood friends will become fathers for the first time. And I hope this is a season when both of them (whether they end with one, several or no trophies) feels that the fates haven’t conspired against them. 

Take Pique. Last season he had to struggle, for the first time, with repetitive injuries which took the edge off his form, his fitness and his confidence to the extent that despite winning four club trophies and the European Championship, 2011/12 will nag away at his psyche for some time yet. 

Pep Guardiola misjudged when to reinstall the now-fit Pique to the first team, and Barça paid a heavy price. It’s not a coincidence, in my view, that the Blaugrana lost really sloppy goals to Chelsea away and Real Madrid at home in the 2-1 Liga defeat when Pique was relegated to the bench. Nor that Chelsea didn’t score either of their goals in the 2-2 semifinal second-leg draw which eliminated the holders until Pique was off the pitch with a horrible concussion. 

His summer at the European championships was exceptional, his partnership with Sergio Ramos awesomely athletic, smart, quick and powerful. (Please note that Spain’s surprise home draw with France recently also came when Pique was missing. He’s a vital part of both of his teams).

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Like Pique, Fabregas had an awesome summer. Sharp, quick, determined, free-scoring, and nerveless in the penalty shootout win over Portugal in the semifinal. 

Again, he has had a blistering start to the term. Suddenly free-scoring again and comfortable up front, he’s also developed an aptitude for supplanting either Xavi, or more regularly, Andres Iniesta in midfield. I contend that, particularly in the United Kingdom, Fabregas is badly undervalued. To have a leader, a competitor like him, the ideal blend of La Masia technique and Premier League snap ‘n snarl, is priceless.

Always fix the domestic problems before turning creative attention elsewhere 

No harm to the old boy but I’d rather not hear much more of Barca President Sandro Rosell’s ‘New! IMPROVED!!, all-singing, all-dancing’ Champions League plans. He put them forward in the autumn — some 64 clubs would take part in his revamped format — and I must say that while I oppose his idea, I’m all for healthy debate and majority rule. 

If the masses want it, then fine. More fool them. 

However, once again, he’s ignoring something more fundamental. More players in Spain are going without wages and more clubs teeter on the brink of financial meltdown. Not new, you might say. Fine, but the previous levels of debt continue to worsen during the world economic crisis, from which Spain is suffering more than most.

The pattern of excessive wage bills, decreasing revenue, empty seats at stadia, overpriced tickets, ludicrous kick-off times and badly split television revenue persists up and down Spain’s professional divisions. 

The Liga Profesional de Futbol is often blamed for some of the mess but I’d also propose that it’s culpable for lacking the driving, relentless will to address the problems, impose solutions and to knock the heads of club presidents together often enough. This is a time in Spanish football history when men of vision, courage, compromise, honesty and diligence are needed like never before. 

I’ve met them, too. Levante President Quico Catalan and Betis’ Miguel Guillen are perfect examples of the clear-headed, dynamic and youthful business brains which the LFP and Spanish football desperately need to be turned towards salvation and renovation. 

The English Premier League is, of course, constantly held up as a paragon of clarity, marketability, wealth, reliability and strategy, but it had to start somewhere. It needed the English equivalent of Catalan, Llorente, Perez, Guillen, Jose Maria del Nido, Rosell to combine and overthrow the ancient regime. Look at the Premier League now. 

For how long can we keep the goose which lays the golden eggs on overtime? 

Finally — to asset stripping. The perfect storm right now is composed of Spain being deeply wealthy in terms of technical talent, and church-mouse poor in terms of its bank balances. Stop for a moment and recall the fact that it’s only two handfuls of years ago that Spaniards really didn’t go to England, not even on holiday. 

The pioneers, Chapi Ferrer, Gaizka Mendieta and Fernando Morientes, waited until towards the end of their careers and had mixed feelings about the experience. Then the kids, Fabregas and Pique and finally the mini armada: Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres and more. 

Now it’s mass migration. When I was growing up, it was a serious and extremely firmly held view that you “didn’t win the title in England without at least one, preferably three, tough, talented Scots in your squad”. Now it’s Spaniards. From what I gather, we can expect to see David Villa, Fernando Llorente, Iago Aspas, Nacho Monreal, Isco and quite possibly Thiago in England next season — there will be numerous other cameo players in the next two transfer markets.

When the tax rate in 1970’s Britain started to reach the stage where you had to pay businesses just so that you could work for them (only joking, but it was moving that way in the last financial crisis which bit the UK this hard), we suffered what was called the brain drain. Top talents in all fields simply wanted to go to a less draconian tax regime in which it wasn’t the more successful you were, the poorer you became. Spain, honestly, needs to find ways to protect its football industry so that the same vicious cycle doesn’t pick up speed and become irreversible. 

Read Graham Hunter’s entire post on his blog on soccernet

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