Gods and Monsters

Has La Roja become the stuff of really boring nightmares?
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The Spanish national soccer team

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fear not, reader. Recent dispatches from the land that Giovanni Trapattoni built with his own bare hands as pig-eyed locals watched on with flabbers gasted may have led you to believe that your correspondent had disappeared for good into a solipsistic rut regarding Ireland's interesting showing in the European Championships. Not so. The great thing about seeing your team repeatedly thrashed at a major tournament is that there's always something else to look at while you're collecting bits of your dreams from surrounding acres. Prising apart our mud-spattered eyelids, we've been able to see that apart from Certain Events, this has been a good tournament.

At least, there have been a lot of good games. So far, there has been an accumulation of enjoyable discrete units of football rather than a multiplication. Which is great; there are alternatives far worse than that. It's just lacked the continual ravishment that Euro 2008 supplied. The difference between now and 2008 is that then, everything was up for grabs. Of the four European semi-finalists in the 2006 World Cup, Italy were worthy winners but short on greatness, France had been left without Zinedine Zidane but with Raymond Domenech and the beginnings of a slow and hilarious meltdown, and Portugal played like Cristiano Ronaldo and his band of session footballers. Only Germany seemed to have something to look forward to, but they were just starting to crawl out from the wreckage of their lost years. So with no clear favourite, every great performance mistakenly seemed like the start of something big. That Spain so thoroughly deserved the title in the end and thus kickstarted their greatest era makes that excitement seem a little silly in retrospect. But ye gods, it was fun.

Since then, a new firm has developed. Spain and Germany are the Establishment. 2008 was a roiling sea from which new continents emerged, and now there is order. So as fun as the play has been, there has been a dependable reference point to keep things in perspective.

This constancy was most evident in Spain's quarter-final win against France. When you're Establishment, people will often defer to you instinctively, whether or not they realise they're doing it. It's a perk. Sometimes you don't have to do anything in particular to frighten your opponents into submission; they come pre-spooked. France were cautious to the point of lifelessness. They bled themselves to death. Spain barely had to try. They scored within twenty minutes, and it was enough to win; the late second goal was a satisfied burp. Hardly a thing happened all night. It was almost Zen. Or, if you like, it was boring.

It was also tremendously impressive, especially if you consider Spain's long history of underachievement. 2008 was their giddy liberation. By the 2010 World Cup, they had been supplemented by the effect of two years of Guardiolism at Barcelona, and opponents were terrified of them. Everyone—even the young thrusters of Germany—set out to stop the irresistible force. Spain were accused of being boring then too, but there are only so many ways you can confront an immovable object. There was still an anxiety about Spain, not least after they lost their opener to Switzerland. They could never be quite sure that their Euro triumph hadn't been a one-off, an anomaly. But by winning the World Cup, they overcame their demons.

Now that all that fretting is out of the way, it's a new epoch. Spain played as they did in 2010 because it was all they could do. Now, they do it because it's all they have to do. Their opponents' obeisance is met with a swagger, and they can do almost as they please. Against France, Cesc Fàbregas played as a striker. Playing that high up the pitch, his usual directness was nullified, because he needs some distance through which to direct himself. He acted like a plug in a plughole, a stopper centre-forward. But it didn't matter; all they had to do was keep passing it around the French. At its liveliest, Spain's possession game is as thrillingly stealthy as something in plain view can be; it can make them resemble a team of well-kempt Solid Snakes. At their worst, it can turn into a sludge, something with the consistency of an EPO user's blood. Either way, they almost always win. And so the traits that have got them where they are have become set, or even exaggerated. Possession football is at least as much about defensiveness as about offensive intent. That conservatism can be rooted in anxiety ("Without the ball we are a disastrous team": Guardiola). But Spain have transcended that, and the conservatism is a restatement of their position. Not for them Germany's naive exuberance. They've been there. They've gotten over that stuff. This is Spain's Imperial Phase.

(I once described a Clásico as being like "two mongooses trying to mesmerize one another, and succeeding". Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that a team mostly comprising Real Madrid and Barcelona players should play like a mongoose trying to mesmerize itself.)

Maybe this will be Spain's undoing. Maybe it will drive them mad, or send them disappearing up their own backsides, or leave them flat-footed when a team really can challenge them. Right now, they are a big cat so fearsome its quarry drops dead in sheer terror. He feasts on it and dozes in the savanna sun knowing that no other son of a kit is going to come near him. But maybe that creature on the horizon—staring at his rival, standing with his legs slightly too far apart to be comfortable, his mane glistening in the sun (with the fat from previous kills, no doubt)—will turn his jugular into a geyser. Or maybe nemesis trails the German or Italian pack. Or maybe one of these enemies might at least force Spain into a gallop (Italy gave it a right good go in the first round).

Or, you know, maybe not. Spain might well win it all while keeping their pulse (and ours) at a steady 72. In which case, we will be confronted, fools that we are, with an uncomfortable truth about sport.

Are Spain boring? That's easy: if they bore you, they're boring to you. Of course, sport is about flinging us skyward as if we were in ejector seats. But it's also a craft whose expert practice has a value distinct from that of delighting the spectator. When it's not enough to describe athletes as merely superhuman and we find ourselves clumsily calling them gods, maybe this is what we mean: in a way, the game is always being played above us. Gods depend for their existence on our belief. But that's all they need. They might want to excite us, but it isn't compulsory. As long as they have our attention, and make us acknowledge them while keeping us from willing their demise, they're there, fighting each other, loving each other, making the sun shine, making the rain fall. They have to listen to our prayers some of the time, but mostly, we're the patsies down below who have to deal with their ambition and caprice. We could probably stop believing if we tried hard enough. But until that day comes, there will always be competitors who go so far that they can afford to take liberties with earthbound mundanity. If they lose, you might consider it hubris. In truth, the only ones who can humble them are other gods.

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