For Spain, no time for nostalgia
If there is one thing in football that not only sells stories but also gives off very nearly the same degree of endorphins as a brilliant live match, it is nostalgia. We drink to it, we daydream of it, and like a life belt in a sea of mediocrity, it can salvage something beautiful from the stormiest of times for your club or country.
Not long ago I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours in the scintillating company of Gordon Strachan, who is currently enjoying "downtime." A title winner in Scotland and England with Aberdeen and Leeds, Strachan also helped the former defeat both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. We gloried in the old anecdotes, his triumphs and mutual friends. It was divine.
I'm often asked to write or broadcast about "golden" times, which is harmless enough. But nostalgia is to current top-level footballers and coaches what rust is to the underside of a car: If they let it into their thinking, it can dull their competitive edge.
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Notwithstanding all that, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque could easily have been forgiven for being lulled into a little bit of looking happily in his rearview mirror ahead of Spain's game against Venezuela in Malaga on Wednesday. (You can watch it on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET.)
In the absence of Fernando Torres (more on that below), here was a chance to invite the hardworking, free-scoring and much-admired Roberto Soldado into the full Spain squad after months of his showing tenacity, skill and a real nose for goal at Valencia.
Soldado? Nostalgia for Del Bosque? Yes, I hear your quizzical tone and sense your raised eyebrow.
Twelve years ago it was Del Bosque, as coach of Real Madrid, who went to take a final look at the then-14-year-old Soldado and told his youth-system scouts that this was the center forward of the future. The Valencia-born striker was recruited and fed into the Madrid nursery system, and then he began to score freely.
It's typical of the recent story of Real Madrid that Del Bosque was shown the door gracelessly in 2003, and Soldado followed not too long afterward. Both men would have served for longer is the retrospective verdict.
Soldado now has a first-class record in the Champions League and is easily Valencia's most valuable, most coveted footballer. And here he is with the world champion at a time when Torres is searching for goals and form, David Villa is fighting to be fit for the summer and Alvaro Negredo was dropped out of the squad through injury just when his opportunity beckoned.
But if Soldado was waiting for sweet words of encouragement from the man who gave him his first big break, he'd have been as disappointed as Torres was to be left out.
Much as Del Bosque holds Soldado in affection, Spain is entering that survival-of-the-fittest moment.
"There are no favored sons in this squad," Del Bosque said Tuesday. "Every single player who joins the Spain squad finds that there is an established order -- those who are playing well for their clubs are, at the same time, earning their chance with Spain. That won't change.
"I well remember the day I went to Valencia to see this 14-year-old kid, and it's always a pleasant emotion when a guy in whom you had faith reaches the top. Often your expectations are frustrated, for various reasons, so I'm enormously pleased for Soldado. When a big player, an important guy like Torres drops out, it's always the case that someone else benefits. We are close to the summer, the months will fly past, and while we experimented with a system where we didn't use a central striker against Scotland and England, we have always, otherwise, used a center forward."
Given Fernando Llorente's excellent form right now, it will be interesting to discover how much game time Soldado enjoys, and it's also his misfortune that this big opportunity arrives just when he has been playing well enough, but the goals have been harder to come by.
A couple of weeks ago, I made the case (which I stand by) that it's more likely that Torres goes to the European Championships with Spain (although he absolutely needs to be playing regularly with Chelsea) and that his value as both a support striker and as an impact player could still be vital for the world and European champions.
In my view, Torres' being left out of the Spain squad for this game is perfectly legitimate given that Didier Drogba has relegated El Nino to the bench, and part of Del Bosque's intention is to make it clear to Torres, and every other player, that there will be no favors done for established stars if they are out of form and sitting on the bench for their club.
Equally, it is clear that Soldado will need to impress in training, in his attitude and in the game time he receives.
Should Del Bosque favor the "false" center forward tactic during the European Championships, he has a handful of footballers who can adapt to that role.
David Silva has done that twice (successfully against Scotland) while Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta could all, in theory, mimic the role that Lionel Messi has made his own at Barcelona and that was once the territory of Francesco Totti at Roma and Michael Laudrup on the Barca Dream Team.
There is a problem in that this "false" center-forward position requires a player who possesses pace -- absolutely, blinding, searing pace if possible. Technique, timing and a good dribble are all required, but that ability to erupt past defenders usually defines whether the role is yours. Probably only Iniesta unites all the qualities, but his physique and tendency toward picking up injuries would render it a decent-sized risk to put him in this physically demanding position.
One of the unknown wild cards which Del Bosque may be able to play is Villa. Although his broken leg was a serious injury, this tough son of a miner has worked tirelessly to advance his rehabilitation. And although many things like strength, sharpness and getting the green light from medical specialists still lie ahead as obstacles to Villa's successful return to the Euros, the betting in Barcelona is that he'll make it in time.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.
So for the supporting cast behind Llorente (Pedro, Negredo, Torres, Soldado), there are going to be some nervous and disappointing days ahead. If Villa is fit and selected this summer, one or two big names will miss out.
However, the great football tournament stories are full of unlikely late-arriving heroes, and personally, I'm not giving up on Torres until it is clear whether he can win his starting role back at Chelsea. If he does, he can still be a vital asset for Spain. If not, there is no place for nostalgia.
On which point there have been two phrases heard more loudly than any others over the past few days with the Spain squad. One is simple and two syllables: compete. It's a word that is being drummed into the players and to which they respond. The champions won't go to the Euros this summer full of arrogance and superiority complex -- they will go to compete. Hard.
The other phrase you hear? It is this: "We have to forget the last four years." They have been golden, they have been glorious and they have taught this group many lessons that are now etched into the computer chips in the brains of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas et al. But there will be no resting on laurels, no turning up and expecting to stroll to a third straight international title. Spain may not be quite the powerful proposition it was approaching the past two big tournaments. But it is not to be underestimated.
Nostalgia? No thanks. Not here.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.
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