The great Euro 2012 debate: Are champions Spain brilliant or boring?
ARE Spain boring? This is the question that Europe is now asking. The final week of the tournament is upon us and while vanquished countries like Ireland engage in post-mortems, the only persistent criticism of the defending champions is that they are so good, they can reduce some viewers to a comatose state.
Within the Spanish camp they are bemused by the assertion, which was expressed strongly in Italian newspapers after Saturday's tame quarter-final win over a half-hearted French side.
"Good, superb and unbeatable, but the champions are a bore," said 'La Repubblica'. Given that the traditional Italian style of play is regarded as more enervating than energising, there was a rich irony in the source of the complaints.
But in England, too, similar sentiments have been aired. The 'dull' method of Spanish domination has been discussed on the same weekend that Roy Hodgson's men exited the competition having registered more tackles and fewer passes than any of the remaining sides.
And Irish eyes can't afford to be too smug about that, considering that the Three Lions are merely a better version of Giovanni Trapattoni's men in terms of their approach to this level. In many respects, the failings are the same.
This is why there is almost a satirical element to the scepticism surrounding the Spaniards. There's a fair chance that if a team from our part of the world had pitched themselves up in the remote countryside town of Gniewino, over an hour from Gdansk -- think Castlepollard compared to Dublin -- debate would have revolved around the boredom of the players, not the entertainment level provided by them.
The detached nature of the Spaniards' purpose-built sports hotel has been compared with England's 2010 base in South Africa, where the players were apparently driven demented and performances suffered as a consequence.
Spain's stars have somehow coped with the time away from their WAGs, city life and a few beers with the lads. They have a different focus. The tone is set by the large clock that greets all visitors who come down the small, narrow, primary road into Gniewino. It does not tell the time. Instead, it is counting down the days, hours and minutes until the final. Nothing else matters.
The players are not robots, of course. Part of the facilities at the Hotel Mistral Sport are a bowling alley, a modern souped-up Scalextric set, and an area for Playstation users. Manager Vicente del Bosque also trusts the squad to do their own thing, within reason, on a post-match night off, so a 60km trip to the Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot region is permitted.
Yet when it comes down to player satisfaction, his philosophy is that the quality of the work on the training ground is paramount.
"One of the key things with any tournament where you'd like to be away from home for 40 days is to fight player boredom," he says. "For all the leisure activities, the absolute No 1 is to keep players interested in training."
A simple thing to say, but the performances on the field bear it out.
Contrast that with Ireland's lengthy intensive preparation that was likened to pre-season and drained the energy from players who had come through long campaigns. "Running, running, running," as Aiden McGeady described it. The golf simulator in the hotel wasn't going to make them feel any better when there was a monotony about the day-to-day work, especially for those who quickly realised they were only there to make up the numbers.
Del Bosque has benched players who are blue chip performers for their clubs, and there's been no trace of dissent, nor any reports of tensions between the Barcelona and Real Madrid players, who are vicious rivals for nine months of the year.
It helps when you're winning, naturally, but all of that comes back to the original discussion -- the method of Spanish control. Back home, Del Bosque has received criticism for entering battle without a recognised striker, and deploying Cesc Fabregas as a 'false nine'.
Established pros around the world have joined in the chorus. Rio Ferdinand tweeted his frustration at Fernando Torres' exclusion from the French match. "Come on maaaaan, I want to see some goals," he said, eloquently.
The Spanish supremo views it differently. With every opponent setting up to frustrate the world champions, he is concentrating on movement rather than formation. He can do so because his stars are so confident with the ball at their feet, they can drag teams who park the bus out of the shape.
Xavi has already executed more passes than any other player in European Championship history. The relentless tiki-taka may not always exhilarate, but the driving factor in the lack of ambition is the approach of the opponents who sit back and accept they can't take on the Spanish at their own game.
Ireland's rearguard was so poor that they gave Del Bosque's men enough space to thrill the neutral with goals and chances aplenty. Other teams have made it slightly more difficult. Yesterday, a Swedish journalist asked Xabi Alonso if Italy had provided the sternest test to date.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "The first game was competitive, and the third game against Croatia was pretty difficult." Trap's men are easily forgotten.
Alonso went on to express his contentment at the fact that the four teams who set out with a positive approach in the quarter-finals all triumphed. It was, he suggested, a victory for the sport.
"That's important for the future of the tournament," he stressed. "The teams that are trying to keep the ball, to keep control of the games, and look for the attacking game... that is the best way to look for victory.
"While we respect all opinions," he continued, when it was suggested that their style of play was boring, "we know how we want to play, and we won't be making any changes in the way we play."
So, they won't be throwing the game plan out the window and launching the ball from Iker Casillas to Torres. That is boredom, Irish and English style, born from a lack of imagination.
Spain have gone so far in their pursuit of excellence that they can't be blamed for opponents failing to live up to their standards. They're not afraid of the ball and it's the courage that makes them the template, all of which is combined with a remarkable workrate and defensive concentration. They haven't conceded a goal in the knockout stages of a major competition since World Cup 2006.
That's one statistic which is often overlooked. It is possible to play creative football and maintain efficiency. Spain are an exceptional example, yet there is no reason why nations with limited reserves of talent shouldn't aspire to the basis of the attitude that makes Del Bosque's men so wonderful.
There's every chance that tomorrow's semi-final with Portugal could be another one-sided affair, but in a week where Irish football asks where it is going, it should be prescribed viewing.