Seasoned Spain hungry for more glory
SALVADOR, Brazil -- When Spain and the Netherlands take the pitch today in Salvador, it will be a replay of the 2010 World Cup final: Andres Iniesta's goal, Nigel de Jong's karate kick, Iker Casillas lifting the World Cup.
Should La Roja falter, two things are pretty much guaranteed: One, the Oranje's win will be described as revenge for events at Soccer City. And two, some folks will knowingly nod their heads and talk about hunger, desire and full bellies.
After making football history and winning three major trophies -- two European championships and a World Cup -- Spain will be somewhat satiated and complacent, they'll say. The flames in the eyes that once matched the red in the jerseys will be that little bit less fire-engine red, signifying some kind of loss of motivation.
When we talk about sport, we talk about desire and hunger. That's what we do, whether it's golf or beach volleyball. Coaches rarely tell their athletes they lost because the opponent was better or played better or simply got the breaks on the day. They bring up metaphysical stuff like who wants it more.
It's a narrative we're all comfortable with because we've heard it a million times.
It's why Rocky beat Apollo, right? And it's why Spain won't win their fourth consecutive major tournament. Because they won't be motivated enough -- or so they tell us.
Increasingly, you wonder whether this is a talking point because it's somehow valid or simply because it's comfortable. Ask coaches and they'll tell you it's stone-cold fact; that's why repeating is so difficult.
"My concern is that these guys who experienced such success -- so much success -- in the past can approach this with fresh eyes and not be content with what they've already achieved," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque recently told the newspaper ABC. "We need to recapture a little bit of that insecurity that drove us the first time."
And so we defer to the guys with whistles and clipboards. After all, they work with players every day. But is del Bosque right to fear a lack of motivation? Does Spain really need "fresh eyes" -- a euphemism for pretending they're not the reigning world and European champions -- to succeed again this time around?
You suspect maybe not, that perhaps del Bosque is simply engaging in a bit of gamesmanship -- poking his players on the one hand, throwing up an alibi on the other.
He's been banging this complacency drum for a while. So much so that many expected at least a third of this World Cup squad to be different from the one he took to the European championship two years ago. Instead, 18 of the 23 are the same, but even that number is misleading, because it would have been 20 of 23 had David Villa not been injured in 2012 and were Victor Valdes not hurt this time around. The "genuine newcomers" are just three: Diego Costa, Cesar Azpilicueta and Koke.
You're tempted to read this as perhaps del Bosque not buying his own complacency argument. Because frankly, if there's one thing Spain don't lack, it's depth. And often, particularly with squad players, he opted for the tried and tested over the new and -- supposedly -- hungry.
Does Raul Albiol -- a veteran of all three major championships dating back to 2008 -- really offer more than, say, Inigo Martinez? Is Juan Mata -- a great player, but remarkably similar to what's already in the squad -- really necessary ahead of somebody like Isco, who at least would offer some pace in the absence of Jesus Navas? If you're so concerned about sitting on laurels and motivation, are you sure Fernando Torres is a better option than Fernando Llorente? (The Basque target man was, admittedly, a part of the last two World Cup and Euro squads, but only got on the pitch for 30 minutes in both tournaments; plus he'd offer Spain a useful Plan B.)
From where I sit, it's not clear at all that del Bosque fears that his crew are in any way satiated after the industrial quantities of silverware they secured with both Spain and at club level in the past six years.
Part of it, perhaps, is down to knowing the psychology of individual players: some guys are simply such intense competitors they never relent. But part of it may also stem from a closer look at the natural arc of these players' careers.
The old rule of thumb is that professional athletes in team sports are most motivated when they're young and trying to break in or when they're close to the end of their careers and they hear, to quote Andrew Marvell, "time's winged chariot drawing near." That's when they leave it all out on the pitch, because they know every game could be their last.
A big chunk of this Spain side falls into this category. Xavi turns 35 next season, Xabi Alonso and Villa 33. Iker Casillas is 34 and, what's more, he doesn't know whether he'll be the first-choice keeper at Real Madrid. Even Andres Iniesta (30) and Juanfran (29) know not to take for granted that they'll still be around come Russia 2018.
There's another element, too. Many of these players have enjoyed enormous success at club level, but they've also experienced the decline that followed. The Barcelona crew (there are six in this squad) won everything in sight but are coming off a campaign that saw them twice bested by Atletico Madrid -- in the Champions League and for the La Liga title -- and end up empty-handed.
The Real Madrid guys went from a 100-point season to the disastrous acrimony of Jose Mourinho's final stand at the Bernabeu to winning La Decima this year. Up, down and then up again. You don't do that if you're the type of person to easily get complacent.
Complacency may make sense for some players in a league setting, where you know there's another match and another season around the corner. But this is the World Cup. Even those guys like Jordi Alba or Gerard Pique or Sergio Ramos, who know they'll get another shot, know full well that next time the supporting cast won't be quite as strong.
I'm not sure how you measure hunger or the will to win, but it's hard to argue that this is Spain's biggest problem right now. Or that del Bosque truly believes it is.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.