Two countries that offer strikingly different models of how to produce great teams could meet in the Confederations Cup final
Of all the emotions commonly associated with football – anger, horror, horrified anger, barkingly incoherent horrified anger – it is rare that a genuine sense of surprise ever creeps in. Football is, after all, the most over-exposed of human activities, a sport that even in its off-season looms above the earth's crust, filling the skies like a dormant alien death saucer. And which, in the satellite-fed consumer age, acts as an unceasing background chunter to the routines of everyday life, an unavoidable interference that enters through the fillings, penetrating the layers of tinfoil stapled to the walls, the saucepan-lid aluminium helmet.
And yet sometimes new things do happen. Surprises are still possible, even at the top end judging by the reaction of Brazilian audiences to their first glimpse of Spain at the Confederations Cup. This week the BBC's correspondent Tim Vickery wrote a fascinating account of Spain's defeat of Uruguay in Recife and the crowd response to that first glimpse of Vicente del Bosque's familiar, scuttling, velcro-touch skill-gnomes with their syncopated command of the rhythms of any match, a team that first took the ball away five years ago this month at Euro 2008 and haven't given it back since.
Spain hadn't played Brazil in Brazil since 1999 – basically since they became Spain – and from Recife there were drooling reviews, collective gasps at a moment of princely touch-and-swivel by Xavi and a general sense of some benevolent alien landing having taken place. Even watching Spain on the grainy transatlantic satellite feed, it was easy to share again the sense of novelty, and to feel a little proud and protective of these quietly severe mini-virtuosos, like your own brilliantly talented children all grown up and suddenly halfway round the world playing the harpsichord at the Olympics.
Not that Spain have remained entirely the same. Certainly there is a shift of texture from the peak-era Spain of Death at the 2010 World Cup, who for long periods seemed to be engaged in the footballing equivalent of knitting, or obsessively packing and repacking an overnight bag. Against Uruguay there was hamsterish pace in vital areas and a collective willingness to accelerate suddenly, like a sudden spurt in the peloton. Plus they just look even more refined and complete, so physically similar that Fernando Torres, emerging from his gloomy place to despatch the ingenues of Tahiti, has already started to carry with him the air of a doomed and clanking prototype, like the last high-spec narrow-screen TV ever manufactured, allowed to lurk unhappily for a while in various corners before finally being dumped rather poignantly on the pavement by the recycling bins.
Beyond this it feels as though the visit to Brazil may be another defining moment for this champion team. The image of the overseas team striding from its steamship to wow the locals was once a recurrent theme in international football. The obvious example is Hungary at Wembley in 1953, the first recorded example on these shores of the witchcraft-football of the overt and unashamed foreigner, albeit to this day pretty much every match against anybody represents a moment of terrifying culture shock for England, who remain baffled by any team that refuses to accept the basic principle that the ball is something shameful to be disposed of brusquely like the corpse of a dead budgie.
Here, though, the fascination is simply the contrast of old and new. Historically it has been Brazil who have offered, now and then, a glimpse of some brilliantly sunlit parallel footballing universe. Where Spain's success has been largely systemic, the theory – if not so much the practice – of Brazilian football tended to revolve around notions of individual expression, a sense of unfenced athletic imagination that in the 1970s was often set up as a bulwark against the turgid mechanised doom of Europe. This was the Brazil of the imagination, Brazil as a lifestyle option, embodied by the disco-trousered Pelé with his guitar and his love beads, the myth of the bicycle-kicking noble savage.
Of course, this was always a bit wide of the mark. Brazil led the world from the 1960s in sports science and structured training camps. The national team relied for decades on the defensive double-wardrobe midfield, building a formation around the pivot of twin central bouncers to protect their flying full-backs.
And yet, for all this, Brazilian league football does still gear itself towards the ideal of the unfettered creative attacker, the player whose job it is to improvise and play off the cuff and generally save the day with a flicker of the old malandro spirit. Plus, for all its economic transformation, Brazil remains a nation where footballers simply happen, emerging from its urban centres with the skills only extreme mass poverty can bestow.
This will presumably change as Brazil's landscape alters, but it is still the exact textural opposite of Spain's industrial modernity. No team in history has ever been so carefully processed and schooled, so clear in its objectives as the current Spain. The statistics on youth coaching – pretty much every sentient adult is a youth football coach – are well known, but it is the super-club structures, the culture of give me the boy and I will give you the technically adept sideways-passing man, that has wreaked this transformation.
This is a nation where the conveyor belt of talent is not a slum or a beach but an actual conveyor belt, and where even the most brilliant attacking players seem oddly unflustered and long-life. Andrés Iniesta looks less like your classic creative star turn and more like a very clever small boy on television who collects antiques and has just got into Cambridge aged nine.
It is this sense of contrast that is the real joy of Spain in Brazil, and what makes this World Cup rehearsal feel like a significant moment. For now the promise of a final between the two is glorious for many reasons, the most poignant of them wrapped up in notions of cultural shift, and of opposed historical methods that can still – the gasps, the rapture of Recife – meet in the middle at a point of shared footballing beauty.