He would be a fantastic poker player, this lugubrious veteran coach. He suppressed a wry smile when it came out on Friday that his team, the defending champion, would kick off the 2014 tournament against the same opponent, the Netherlands, it beat through Andrés Iniesta’s goal in extra time in Johannesburg four years ago.
“I told friends this morning that we would get Holland,” he said. “Getting Chile as well makes it a rather complicated group.”
Complicated. You do not hear del Bosque mention a Group of Death. His Dutch adversary, Louis van Gaal, called this “the worst of the groups,” slightly less dramatic than Jurgen Klinsmann’s lament that the United States was drawn into “the worst of the worst.”
Del Bosque’s rhetoric has always been understated. He said nothing quotable, nothing remotely recriminatory, when Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez fired him a decade ago, claiming that despite the team winning La Liga, del Bosque looked worn out and “not a coach for the future.”
And now, five and a half years after he took over the Spanish side after it won Euro 2008 — and with just eight losses in 84 games as the national trainer — del Bosque is seeking an unprecedented achievement of winning back-to-back World Cups, together with back-to-back Euro championships.
Ten coaches have passed through Real Madrid since tired old del Bosque was dismissed. None has bettered his record. He turns 63 years old this Christmas, but has just extended his contract with the national team through 2016.
“Football is my passion, my vice,” he said in Rio de Janeiro in June. “I have had marvelous moments as a player in great teams, and right now I am coaching a team which is in one of its best-ever phases. So I am enjoying it, even if I am not showing it that obviously.”
He was speaking then of the side that looked weary and was overrun, 3-0, by Brazil in the Confederations Cup, the rehearsal for 2014. The critics were saying then, and are repeating now, that Spain and its tiki-taka keep-ball style had run its time.
The core of the team, Xavi Hernández, Xabi Alonso, Iniesta in midfield, and Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, even Gerard Piqué, at the back, have run so many miles for club and country, won so many cups, that 2014, in the heat, the humidity and with the vast distances to cover in Brazil, could prove a tournament too far.
Del Bosque, however, knows these players better than anyone else. He didn’t buy into the ageist argument of his president at Madrid, and he looks now at Xavi (130 national team games and still running), Alonso (109 caps and just back, refreshed after a long injury), Puyol (100 caps and something to prove about fitness).
Yes, age creeps up on them. Yes, there is sometimes a limit on how many times a champion can run through the wall of effort in a monthlong, sapping tournament. But like life itself, sports is a balance between youth and experience. If players like these think they have another World Cup in them, why would a coach discard the talents, and the know-how, that has delivered?
When del Bosque says the team is in “one of its best-ever phases,” he surely is understating the players once again. But even now, even six months from the event, the coach knows something else.
The records at youth international tournaments show that the production line of Spanish talents — and the methods of nurturing those talents — have far from run dry. Another estimable coach heading for the World Cup, Italy’s Cesare Prandelli, said over the weekend that “we all will need 23 athletes in these temperatures.”
Spain has talent still coming through the system to make that squad competitive. Del Bosque trusts the senior players as long as their form and fitness hold out. He also has emerging players, such as Isco, the 21-year-old Real Madrid prospect. And with Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fàbregas, Iniesta and David Silva experienced beyond their years, the cards he holds could still be a winning hand.
“It’s good for the mentality,” del Bosque suggested on Friday. “When you play lesser teams, there is a problem with concentration.”
The Spanish federation has tested that concentration to the limits. It has taken the world trophy to the far corners of the globe, reaping profit wherever it goes, and in the process adding to the workload on senior players. One of the eight defeats, for example, came last month in Johannesburg, where Spain, returning to the scene of its greatest triumph, lost, 1-0, to South Africa.
Del Bosque made 10 changes from the side that had won 2-1 in Equatorial Guinea three days previously. For the coach and for the players, this was an exhibition game during a week when those players were expected to be at full speed for their clubs by the weekend.
Six months after the Confederations Cup loss to Brazil in the Maracanã, and six months before the World Cup, del Bosque has suggested that the nations might meet again in the 2014 final.
For that to happen, Spain probably has to win its group to avoid running into Brazil in the first knockout round. And in the event of Spain and Brazil meeting again, del Bosque is lining up a striker that he lacked a year ago. Diego Costa, born in Brazil but scoring in La Liga for Atlético Madrid, qualified for Spanish citizenship recently, and opted to represent Spain rather than Brazil at national level.
If del Bosque has lacked one piece for his jigsaw, it has been a decisive finisher, like Costa.