Monday, June 3, 2013

Spain finally reached World Cup finals – for the first time since 1966. The least successful among traditional big football nations, Spain experienced systematic failures and disappointments. The 1970s were particularly bad – neither national team, nor club won anything. For the national team the draw played a cruel joke – Spain had to face Yugoslavia and Romania for practically every big tournament. Finally, the East European nemesis was overcome, by luck rather than superiority. Of course, Spain was hungry for success, it was tough and difficult team to play against, and pride and ambition were never absent. As were never absent the weaknesses of the Spanish style of football – too much preoccupied with fighting, playing dirty tricks at the expense of the real game, and failing to come really close to modern total football. Yet, Spain was traditional favourite, always considered. Hardly any observers saw the Spaniards as potential World champions, but nobody dismissed them either. Nobody called them 'La Furia Roja' back then, but oousiders they were not – in their group everything was possible, three fairly equal teams, but still Spain, along with Brazil, was likely to advance to the second round.

Ladislao Kubala coached Spain – one of the greatest stars of the 1940s and 1950s, Kubala perhaps is the player who represented most countries in the history of football. He played for Slovakia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Spain. And it was because of naturalized foreigners like him Spain imposed a ban on foreign players in 1964. By then Kubala was already a coach and his coaching career was strangely checkered: not very great, interrupted by another stint as a player in the second half of the 1960s, when he played a bit in Canada together with his son Branko Kubala, his brother in law Yanko Daucik, and under his coaching father in law Ferdinand Daucik. And he returned again to Spain to coach lowly Cordoba for an year, after which was appointed to coach the national team in 1969. And he stayed at the helm of Spain until 1980 – amazingly long spell for a country known for impatience with coaches. Under Kubala Spain suffered defeats 'at the last minute', but finally clinched a spot at the finals of the 1978 World Cup. By then Kubala was already 60-years old, seen abroad as a representative of older generation and old styles, hardly an innovative or adventurous coach, but one with vast experience, well versed in the traditional Spanish trickery, and capable of fielding sturdy, tough, and difficult to play against teams. And his world cup squad was typical of the approach:
1    GK  Luis Arconada                      26 June 1954 (aged 23)           Real Sociedad
2    DF   Antonio de la Cruz                7 May 1947 (aged 31)            FC Barcelona
3    MF  Francisco Javier Uría             1 February 1950 (aged 28)     Sporting de Gijón
4    MF  Juan Manuel Asensi               23 September 1949 (aged 28) FC Barcelona
5    DF   Migueli                                  19 December 1951 (aged 26) FC Barcelona
6    DF   Antonio Biosca                      8 December 1949 (aged 28)    Real Betis
7    FW  Dani                                      28 June 1951 (aged 26)           Athletic Bilbao
8    FW  Juanito                                  10 November 1954 (aged 23)  Real Madrid
9    FW  Quini                                     23 September 1949 (aged 28) Sporting de Gijón
10  FW  Santillana                               23 August 1952 (aged 25)       Real Madrid
11  MF  Julio Cardeñosa                     27 October 1949 (aged 28)     Real Betis
12  MF  Antonio Guzmán                    2 December 1953 (aged 24)    Rayo Vallecano
13  GK  Miguel Ángel                         24 December 1947 (aged 30)   Real Madrid
14  MF  Eugenio Leal                          13 May 1953 (aged 25)           Atlético Madrid
15  FW  Marañón                                23 July 1948 (aged 29)            RCD Español
16  DF   Antonio Olmo                        18 January 1954 (aged 24)       FC Barcelona
17  DF   Marcelino                              13 August 1955 (aged 22)        Atlético Madrid
18  DF   Pirri                                        11 March 1945 (aged 33)        Real Madrid
19  FW  Carles Rexach                        13 January 1947 (aged 31)       FC Barcelona
20  FW  Rubén Cano                            5 February 1951 (aged 27)      Atlético Madrid
21  MF  Isidoro San José                      27 October 1956 (aged 21)     Real Madrid
22  GK  Urruti                                      17 February 1952 (aged 26)    RCD Español
To many observers, the Spanish selection seemed too old – the key figures were around 30-years old and relatively new starters were approaching thirty as well. The rest were young, mostly unknown outside Spain, representing smaller clubs, and clearly seen as firm reserves. The combination appeared odd: Asensi, Pirri, Rexach, the big names, were a bit over the hill and failing internationally for years, it was unlikely they would be stars at the finals. They were complimented by players of recent fame, but also near the dangerous age of thirty: Quini, Cardenoza, Cano, Uria, Biosca, even Dani. A few, also on the oldish side, were well known and hardly great, so it was curious why they and not others were chosen: Miguel Angel, Migueli, de la Cruz. Santillana was by far the most internationally recognized star in the team, which was hardly enough for success. Young players like Juanito and San Jose were seen as potential big international stars, but they were very few and some – particularly the goalkeepers Arconada and Urruti – were not expected to play at all. Yet, some big stars were missing – particularly Irribar, Camacho, and del Bosque. Irribar, regular goalkeeper for years was not called since 1976 – a bit strange, for Miguel Angel was lesser goalie than the veteran, and Arconada and Urruti were still considered too young to be regulars. The absence of Camacho, arguably the best Spanish player in 1970s, at least to the foreign eye, was clearly a handicap. And del Bosque was better than de la Cruz and Migueli. But even with them the squad would have been mostly defensive-minded one, and quite weak in attack. Hardly a potential world cup winner, but a team likely to reach the second round.

Perhaps the biggest problem was the names of the players: some were known by their real names (Asensi, Rexach), others by nicknames (Pirri, Santillana). No problem in Spain, but internationally – FIFA required real name registration and the Spanish list was a puzzle: most players were not really known abroad, leading to confusion – often TV commentators and journalists used two names for same player in the same broadcast or article. Castro and Quini, for example. Sometimes Spain looked like having more than eleven players on the pitch because of that.