Spain will stick to their principles at the World Cup despite accusations that their possession football is outdated
“Right now, no,” Juan Mata smiles, “but I imagine that when we get to the stadium and they’re there in front of us, we won’t be able to help it. Then I’m sure it will come into my mind; then I’ll look at their players and think: ‘That’s the guy that ...’ Then it will come back to us.”
On Friday in Salvador, Spain play their first World Cup match since that night at Soccer City in South Africa and against the same opponents: Holland. It is inevitable that the memories from the 2010 World Cup final will come flooding back, and with them the emotions provoked by the Andrés Iniesta goal “that changed Spain’s footballing history for ever”.
“I was on the bench and as the attack built, we were getting up, we could see it coming, building, the expectation growing. The goal didn’t come out of nowhere, it built. It was a culmination,” Mata recalls.
“When Andrés scored we started running towards the corner. I don’t know how long I took to get there but I was sprinting flat out. I’m not sure if it was [David] Silva grabbing hold of me. I got there, jumped on top, we all fell down. Incredible.
“I looked at the scoreboard and saw 115 minutes. Those final five minutes were torture. We were so tense. We were trying to pressure the fourth official to make sure that he didn’t add on too much time. We tried to encourage the team because by then they were destroyed physically. The tiniest little thing could ruin it for us and they were very, very tired. Everything comes together: the tension, the nerves, the tiredness, the emotion. You’re there thinking about the chances Robben had, the saves from [Iker] Casillas – it’s all going round in your head.”
Four years ago, Mata watched it unfold from the bench, a 22-year-old breaking through at Valencia. Now, a European champion for club and country, twice Chelsea’s player of the year, the most expensive signing in Manchester United’s history, and a starter in last summer’s Confederations Cup final here, he might have expected to play a central role four years on. Yet he admits that there were moments when he doubted he would be here at all.
This World Cup was one factor in his decision to sign for United but it was no guarantee – the pressure to perform was high. “I wouldn’t say ‘worried’ but of course you do wonder what might happen,” he says.
Vicente del Bosque did not visit or call and, asked if there were times when he felt that he had to stand out when he played, Mata admits: “I have thought that once or twice, yes. But it’s best not to. I think it’s much better to go out on to the pitch and play like I always do, to let things happen naturally. I would rather not try to force anything. If you play naturally it’s more likely that things will go well for you than if you go on to the pitch thinking: ‘I’ve got to play well to go to the World Cup.’”
Now that he is here, the pressure is not diminished. Not for Mata, not for anyone. Two years ago Spain won a unique third consecutive tournament. They have not conceded a goal in 10 knockout games. Yet the debate was intense, the criticism sharp, and it is not just that they are obliged to win, it is that winning alone sometimes seems insufficient.
Meanwhile, last summer’s Confederations Cup final defeat to an aggressive, energetic Brazil team raised questions that were deepened by the failure of Barcelona or Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League final. Some even announced the death of possession football. Are Spain still equipped to win? Does the model still work?
“The problem is that it was not enough to win or play well. We had to win and play well,” Mata says. “On the one hand, that’s great because it shows that people have high expectations of us and that comes from what we have achieved before but it also suggests that people do not realise that it’s not easy. It’s extremes, all or nothing. Look at Rafa Nadal. He loses one tournament and people question him. Then what happens?
“To win a tournament you need to be lucky too. At the World Cup we had that luck. Paraguay missed a penalty, a shot against the post ... against Chile we were on edge. The demands are huge and, never mind everyone else, what we want is huge too: to win, to play well, to make people enjoy it. It’s not easy to do that after six years but I think we can.
“Spain play the way that, for me at least, brings the greatest satisfaction: playing, passing, keeping the ball, a technical game. I want to win. That goes without saying. We all want to win; that’s the most fundamental thing. But we want to enjoy it too. And why can’t you win enjoying the way you play?”
Some do not enjoy it, though, and many of the voices decrying Spain’s “boring” style came from England. Some in Spain agreed while others saw that as indicative of England’s neanderthal approach to football. Mata was not one of them. “I understand that people like the style of football that has helped to make the Premier League such an attractive competition, so spectacular. Attacking, box to box, physical, crosses, headers. Loads of chances. It’s very exciting,” he says.
“But Spain’s style is different and it’s different because of the players that we have. Generally, Spain’s players are different to English players. Maybe they are less strong physically, less powerful, but they like to have more touches on the ball, they like to have possession, to play more passes. Spain’s players are players of technical quality, possession, passing, patience, control. Spain try to move up the pitch, stage by stage, with the ball. To play between the lines.
“Right now ‘the possession debate’ is fashionable but with the players Spain have, that’s the way to play. If you look at the way that the youth systems in Spain work, they take a path that is not a simple one, but in the long run I think it pays off. That’s what has brought us success.”
The other common accusation is that Spain lack a plan B. “The thing is that I think Spain has that,” Mata protests. “We have players who can open up the pitch on the wings when the game is tight. We have strikers who are physically stronger than others. We have full-backs that overlap more or less, depending on the circumstances of the game. I think the coach has a very clear footballing identity, a way of playing that we all believe in, but I also think that we have other options.
“Looking back on the Brazil game [in last year’s Confederations Cup final], for example, they were better than us, that’s all. There was a fundamental moment in the game that might have changed things which was when David Luiz cleared one off the line from Pedro. If we had scored then, it would have taken the edge out of the atmosphere and the game.
“The stadium was incredible, and there was so much noise. Then they scored two goals in key moments, while we missed out on that chance, and that’s where the game escaped us. We’re talking about Brazil at the Maracanã, with that atmosphere, where the emotional factor plays a part too.”
Could that count against Brazil, though? “I spoke to Oscar about this some months ago and he was saying: ‘If we don’t win ... pfff’. Everyone is expecting them to win and I think that’s a double-edged sword. That can really carry you through out on the pitch, the team gets incredible energy from the fans, but it things don’t go well, that’s an extra pressure.”
Brazil remain the team to avoid, though, and this opening game against Holland takes on a particular significance because dropped points may be costly: the runners-up in the group will face the winners of Brazil’s group. “The objective is to win the group anyway,” Mata says, adding by way of explanation “and if they finish second ...”
He started it, so let’s finish it. If Brazil finish second, would it be better for Spain to finish second too? There is a pause. “I like to win. I would like to win every game and be first in the group. [But] I don’t know what I would think if we were in that position.”
And if Spain thought the Brazilians were against them at the Confederations Cup, this time they turn up having “robbed” Diego Costa from them. “He’s pretty brave and I don’t think it will affect him,” Mata says. “It might even motivate him. It might be that little extra he needs.”
The question is whether Costa fits Spain’s style and the answer suggests an alternative question: does any striker?
“In principle, he’s different. He played fantastically this season … He’s done enough to be called up, that’s for sure. He can bring what he brought to Atlético. Goals. That’s the fundamental thing: goals, goals, goals. But he can also battle with the central defenders, he can receive with his back to goal and bring others in, he can receive the ball beyond the defence, although that is harder when you play for Spain because our players tend to arrive into the area from further back.
“You have to understand our play very well to fit in as a forward, where there is not much space, where the movement is fundamental. The way Spain plays makes it difficult. Spain tend to arrive, rather than ‘be’. And a normal striker tends to ‘be’. That’s why Cesc has played there as a false nine and why Silva has played there.”
And could Mata? “I have. Not for Spain but I played a couple of games there with Unai Emery at Valencia. And if it means playing, I’ll play anywhere. It’s a World Cup, a Brazilian World Cup. The country. Brazil is the country the majority of the great players in history have come from. The whole world looks to Brazil as a very special country in footballing terms. It has something about it. It will be very special and we have come here with optimism.”