Oldies to the fore
Emboldened by a prediction I made for a Manchester local television station ahead of the Champions League final (“It’ll go to penalties, after being 1-1 after extra time,” I said. “And you know Edwin Van der Sar has saved penalties against Chelsea before”) I am going to make one for the Euro 2008: Spain are going to win it.
Mind, the thing about the Champions League one was I didn’t really believe it. I was pretty certain Chelsea were going to do it, but just said that because it was a Manchester television station and I didn’t want to upset their viewers. Unfortunately I barely remembered saying it. Especially when I made a telephone bet later in the day and went with Chelsea. So what do I know as a pundit? Except this: I really do think Spain will do it.
We all know why they normally don’t. Spain’s is not a national dressing room, it is more a regional assembly of warring councils. The Basques can’t stand the Catalans, the Balearic islanders can’t stand the mainlanders and everyone hates anyone from Madrid. Except those from Madrid, obviously, who hate everyone else. Trying to convert the disparate interests into a working whole has been a task well beyond a succession of Spanish coaches. Which has resulted in Spain’s record in international competition (one victory in the European Championships in 1964) being even more woeful than England’s. And that is saying something. Especially given the strengths of the country’s league.
This time, however, it will be different. Spain have everything going for them: players, temperament, timing. If you were creating a fantasy football side, picking from the squads of all the other nations in this competition, you would be hard pushed to come with anything to match what Spain has to offer. With Casillas, Puyol and Ramos in defence they have a collection of veterans so experienced, so wily, so competent, so grizzled in a movie they would be played by Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. These are defenders who don’t make mistakes, who take being beaten as a personal insult. In midfield, the regional battles will be irrelevant as all of Spain’s finest talents are Catalans: Xavi, Inesta and Fabregas. The latter is a player who – for reasons best known to himself – insists of using his nickname on his international shirt and being referred to as Cesc. While up front they have the two best forwards in the competition: Torres and David Villa, pace, power and panache made flesh.
But the thing that really makes me think this could be Spain’s year is the presence brooding in the dug out. Luis Aragones is a cantankerous old cove of a coach, given to sulphurous public utterances and inexcusable racist utterances involving leading French forwards. He is, in many ways, the face of the old-fashioned, backwoods Spain of the sort that makes fun of Lewis Hamilton’s skin colour at Formula One testing in Barcelona. Unacceptable and unnecessary. Yet there is something about Aragones that suggests he is plugged into the footballing zeitgeist: his age. He is 70. And this season has been the year of the old coach. What with the 61 year-old Harry Redknapp lifting the FA Cup, Fabio Capello, 62 in June setting off on a four-year plan with England, 66 year-old Alex Ferguson winning the golden double of Premier League and Champions League and 69 year-old Giovanni Trapattoni taking control of the Irish squad, football is now in thrall to the wisdom of the grey.
Aragones is poised to add another glittering pot to the collection compiled by the old boys network. Age will not only not wither this lot, it will not be denied. It is Spain’s trophy.
By Jim White