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Decoding Spain's La Roja


THE GOLD STANDARD: Andres Iniesta (6) and Xavi Hernandez (8) lead the celebrations after Spain scored the fourth goal against Italy at the Euro final last week

As the story goes, what is now known as the famous tiqui-taca of Spain did not start in any great field of a massive championship but in the little Danish port of Aarhus. The Spanish team was playing a crucial tie against Denmark to qualify for the Euro on a cold night in October 2007. La Roja had to beat the Danes to avoid missing out of the 2008 Championship in Austria-Switzerland, and that too, with injuries to several players that today need no introduction - Carles Puyol, Fernando Torres and David Villa.

The then coach Luis Aragones had to bet on a group of boys that had until that moment not played a big role in the team including Andrês Iniesta and Cesc F?bregas. The Spanish team looked promising despite failure at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where they had been defeated by France in the quarterfinals. I still remember that game and the indolent swagger of our sports media who dared to suggest, prior to the match, that Zidane and Co were too old to play. They assumed Spain would win, but didn't. It was a clear 3-1 defeat.

The atmosphere before the game against Denmark was not the best. Aragonês had decided to drop the star striker Raul Gonzalez from the team and was expectedly at the receiving end of criticism from the powerful Real Madrid supporters. But despite this supposed weakness, La Roja defeated the Danes 1-3. There was a special moment in the game, one with a glimpse for the future: For the second goal, the players strategically moved the ball with 65 touches and 27 passes for over a minute, before Sergio Ramos scored.

That was the first public presentation that the tiqui-taca ever had. Qualification for Euro remained on track. In the locker room, remembers defender Carlos Marchena in the daily El Pais, players started shouting, "Now we are really ready!". Since then, proclamations like "Pass it!", "Stick it to the ground!", "You never get tired of having the ball!" and "( Goals) will come!" have become typical among today's Spanish players, and surely will sound familiar to any Indian supporter used to following their matches.

The rest is now part of history, but at that time, few believed without hesitation in that team.

Any Spanish football fan has on his shelves a small collection of thorns: a missed penalty here, a disallowed goal there. As it's often repeated, the team - pompously named La Furia Roja (Red Fury) - was world football's perennial underachiever. It used to reach the World Cup, proclaim itself a "favourite, " then come back home defeated. So fans knew until recently that few joys could be expected from that 'fury', and tended to be highly critical of it, that too with some resentment (in sporting terms, of course): We thought our game was more attractive than others. However, the German physical approach or Italian catenaccio seemed better ways of winning titles.

That explains why La Roja is such a special team. As important as winning is the way you win. Luis Aragones gave way to quiet Vicente del Bosque before the World Cup in South Africa, but the latter has remained loyal to the essence of the game: the patient touch of the ball, the precise control through possession, a smart and clever pressure;all of it perceived by the viewer as attacks in waves of red dots. Del Bosque, who is no friend of grandiloquent sentences, stated a few days ago that what Spain does is simply to stick to football manuals. The triple 'P' : "Presi?n, Posesi?n, Profundidad (Pressure, Possession and Depth)". As if it was so easy to pass the ball with a scale and bring back the ball to the core of the game!

When over the past fortnight, in Delhi my Spanish colleagues and I read that our team played "boring football" our feeling was that it was being judged with a different standard compared with its opponents, who usually displayed a willingness to defend with order and mount counter-attacks. And then, at the same time, we were surprised that other sectors of the foreign press were talking about Spain as the "best team ever".

But there are two issues more which make the achievements of this team unusual: the first is that, as most would know, Spain as a country is passing through a difficult economic situation and football has become an unexpected source of joy, a momentary respite for many of our people who are suffering. This was also highlighted by Iniesta during the massive celebrations in Madrid earlier this week. "Sport, " writes Enric Juliana, one of the best Spanish political commentators in La Vanguardia, "has a terrific narrative power. This Spanish July would be very different without that football victory ... The selecci?n is an incisive reality and, at the same time, an illusion. It projects an idea of the country that is, at present, above the national average".

In a question of image when it comes to promote Spain abroad, personally, besides that phenomenon called Rafael Nadal, I have never seen so many positive references to Spain in the Indian press in the last few years. There is no need for a branding expert to tell us that that in promotion and soft diplomacy, the triumphs of the Red are pure gold. For us, there are no better ambassadors than Casillas, Torres, Iniesta and Co.

The second special factor about this team comes from the complex regional identities sharing public life in Spain. In some regions, like Catalonia and the Basque country, there are strong feelings of belonging and some even try to promote their own teams in international competitions. The seleccion, for some, was - and to an extent, it still is - thus a kind of unwanted reality. However, this group, partly because of the widespread presence of Catalan players like Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol, the influence of FC Barcelona in the game, has broken the trend. There might be people in some regions who do not openly celebrate the triumphs of Spain, but they find it difficult to not love and appreciate not only the way they play it, but the way they are. Quite different from a star-like system, the general feeling in Spain is that these players could have been born in any neighbourhood in the country and have always demonstrated an admirable sportsmanship. On many online videos, for example, these days you can watch Iker Casillas asking the referee for the final whistle after the Euro final against Italy. "Respect for Italy!" you can hear him say. Go to my town, C?ceres, in the Extremadura region of Spain, and ask any child who his or her hero is, and invariably you will hear the names, 'Casillas', 'Iniesta' and the like.

So, is this Spain the best team ever? In Spanish we always say 'las comparaciones son odiosas (all the comparisons are awful)'. Spain will never face the Brazilian team of 1970 or the Hungarians of the '50s, so it will remain a subject to stimulate our imagination and debate. But the point is that the debate has started. Being best or second best, what's in a name? The fact is that nobody can deny the power of several core values raised by La Roja, such as loyalty to a bright idea or putting the team above individuals. We just know we have a red rose in front of our eyes and do not tire looking at it. We also know that someday like every flower fades, this selection of legends will fall against a more powerful adversary or as a matter of luck. And then, as has happened with other great and memorable teams, history will be responsible for judging them. But let's remain calm in the meantime: It's just football and we've enjoyed it as much as they deserved their victory.

(Diego Ag?ndez is the New Delhi correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE since 2006. When not trying to improve his footballing skills, he writes textbooks for children and is currently working on a book about contemporary India. )

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