Sunday 18 August 2019

Vicente del Bosque: How I won the World Cup for Spain by accident

Former Spain head coach Vicente Del Bosque
Former Spain head coach Vicente Del Bosque

Roy Hodgson should take the chance to be inspired on Friday night in Alicante. Not by Spain who will be under-strength and are not the force they were. But by the man sat in the opposite dugout.

Vicente del Bosque – mild-mannered, understated, and at 65 proof that sometimes in sport you just never know when your greatest moment will arrive.

I put that to him as we talk at the Spanish Football Federation’s headquarters on the outskirts of Madrid, suggesting that after being sacked by Real Madrid for not being “modern enough” in 2003 he could never have imagined that he would end up a World Cup winner and a European Champion a decade later.

“No, no, no, hombre. And if I go back further, I never thought about dedicating myself to this profession at all,” he says. “I thought I would spend my life, after retiring from playing, developing young players. I only took over the first team at Real Madrid because the club, in a certain set of circumstances, needed me to.”

Iker Casillas (C) and Vicente del Bosque (R)
Iker Casillas (C) and Vicente del Bosque (R)

He won two Ligas and two Champions Leagues but was fired in a corridor because president Florentino Perez decided he wanted someone a little more cutting edge.

Now with World Cup and Euro 2012 winner’s medals safe in the vault, Del Bosque comes into Spain’s Cuidad de Futbol headquarters every morning to attend to the business of the most successful national side of the 21st century.

The Real Madrid director, Emilio Butragueno, brought Del Bosque to this very training complex in his last season at Real because the club had sold its old training ground and were waiting for the new one to be built.

Del Bosque was brought along to check out the facilities with a view to Madrid becoming temporary tenants the following season but he knew he would be gone at the end of that campaign anyway, and so did Butragueno. Not that he blames the director who he had seen come up through the ranks after an almost two-decade stretch working with the club’s young players.

“I was working in the youth system of the club for 17 very happy years,” Del Bosque tells me in his office. “It was the most wonderful thing I have done. I wasn’t earning money and no one knew who I was.”

Even in subsequent successes he has kept a low profile. He has no time for the art of trying to influence a game with touchine histrionics.

“It’s theatrical but it has no real value,” he says, being careful not to name names.  “People say: ‘Look how passionate he is, look how emotionally involved he is in the game!’ But who really believes that every other coach isn’t going through those same emotions.

“Then they say: ‘Yes, but he transmits so much energy’. The real transmission of energy to your players is in the way you have prepared them for the game.”

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque kicks a ball on the sidelines
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque kicks a ball on the sidelines

He laughs at the fad in Spain for labelling those more animated managers “entrenadores ganadores” (winning coaches). “There is no one in the world who doesn’t want to win. When you hear someone say: ‘this coach is a real winner’ it’s a ridiculous statement,” he says. “Show me the coach who likes to lose!”

And neither has he ever been big on ostentatious rollickings. “I like things to be done properly. But you have to think about who you’re dealing with.

"You can criticise one player and he will accept it well but with another player it might be better for you to suggest: ‘don’t you think it would be better to do things this way?’ Footballers know when they are not doing something right anyway; they know perfectly well.”

In almost 50 years in the game – he made his debut aged 17 as a cultured midfielder who went on to play 19 times for his country – his brush with English football centres mainly on two enigmatic wingers. He was a team-mate of Laurie Cunningham when Real lost the 1981 European Cup final to Liverpool.

And he coached Steve McManaman in the 2000 Champions League final with the Englishman scoring in a 3-0 win.  He speaks with affection about both. “Macca” he says is a gentleman with a capacity to be a leader because of his ability to get on with everyone. And “Laurie” had everything as an athlete and a player, albeit without the consistency.

But what comes to mind now when Del Bosque is confronted with the words ‘English football’? “There is no ‘English’ football anymore – certainly not if we’re talking about an authentic style,” he says. “Because of the mix of so many players from abroad if no one told you the team playing was English it would be difficult to guess.”

That blurring of the lines has come in part because so many Spanish ended up in the Premier League; something that helped the country to win three tournaments. “It opened our minds,” he says. “It was a major advance that there were boys who wanted to go and play abroad. When you have Cesc [Fabregas] aged 19 and he’s Arsenal captain or Thiago [Alcantara] at Bayern – it has been good for us.”

The squad that faces England on Friday includes 10 players who are based abroad. Del Bosque follows most of the Spanish diaspora on TV. His reluctance to fly to London, Manchester and Munich to watch Fabregas, David de Gea and Thiago at the weekends does not come as a surprise. There is a “slippers in the board room”, Bob Paisley, feel to Spain’s manager. He doesn’t believe that ‘tiki-taka’ is anything more than a label, and he certainly doesn’t think England should be copying it.

“Football goes in trends; there are fashions and they are marked by whoever is winning. If the Germans win, then the German way must be best! And if we are winning then we must have the answer! English football has a lot of good things. That doesn’t mean it can’t modernise but it has been doing that for a long time.”

He also has little time for the theory that winter breaks would solve all. “Sometimes when we don’t know how to explain things that are to do with just football, nothing more, then we look for excuses: ‘It’s the winter break. It’s something that can’t really be proved so we’ll grasp at that’.” It wasn’t a problem for the Premier League-based players in Spain’s trophy-winning teams of 2008, 2010 and 2012. “And it isn’t now,” he adds.

His departure has not been confirmed but Del Bosque will leave his post after next summer’s tournament. As he steps out into the clear air that breezes off the Sierra Madrid mountain range in the distance, and on to one of the pitches to be photographed some more he jokingly asks if the photographer wants him to lie down in the goalmouth as he might have been asked back in his playing days. It is clear he no longer moves as gracefully as he did with the ball at his feet. Over 400 appearances have taken their toll. But he has become a football dignitary – a wise old man of the game – and the status suits him.

He says when he finally leaves the job he will be concentrating on just “living well and spending time with the family”. He has three grown children – the youngest of whom, Alvaro, has Down’s syndrome and became a star at the 2010 World Cup for being Xavi’s biggest fan. Who is Alvaro’s favourite now?

“He still loves Xavi most,” says Del Bosque. Alvaro and Spain will have to do without him next summer in France. They will also be missing David Villa and Xabi Alonso. It’s impossible to expect the team to be the same with three of its greatest players retired.

Del Bosque anticipates an incredibly open tournament – one that even Gareth Bale’s Wales could win? “Yes, why not ?” he says. “I would not rule anyone out because these are short tournaments and if you hit form at the right time... I think it’s good that there are 24 teams. I like that.”

England will be in that mix. Could 68-year-old Hodgson be about to have his finest hour? Most England supporters would say no. Del Bosque wouldn’t be so sure. “We have had a lot of luck along the way,” he says. “You need that to win tournaments. I think we were predestined to become world champions: for whatever reason it was just meant to be.”

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