Sid Lowe
Tuesday May 18th, 2010

Pep Guardiola started the fire and Pep Guardiola would have to put it out. It was supposed to be a eulogy, a tribute. He was trying to prove that he hadn't been lying all along. He was also trying to provoke pride. Instead, he provoked a panic, a moral outcry. His comforting message for Barcelona fans became a threat for the rest of Spain. Guardiola had inflamed national sensibilities; soon he was having to cool them down again. But the specter he raised still haunted them.

It happened in the build-up to Barcelona's crucial clash with Villarreal on May 1. Barcelona had just been knocked out of the Champions League by Inter Milan; fail to win against Villarreal three days later and it would effectively be knocked out of the league title race, too. Xavi Hernandez had missed training and was struggling to make it. Guardiola announced that he would probably be without the central midfielder who makes Barcelona tick. The man who makes Spain tick, too -- and that was the point.

In the end, Xavi played. Barcelona won 4-1. The title race was still on. But, some said, what Guardiola had done was not. Many saw sneaky mind games in his pregame comments. Others saw a barefaced lie. After the match, Guardiola insisted that Xavi was indeed injured -- in fact, he had a tear in his calf -- but that, given what was at stake, he had risked his physical well-being for the sake of his club. He had risked more than that.

"Xavi played with an injury that could cost him the World Cup, but he showed his commitment," Guardiola said. "That's why he's the best midfielder in the history of the club."

The reaction was as immediate and as fearful as it was furious. If he was risking the World Cup, then commitment to his club meant a lack of commitment to his country. One headline spoke for all in declaring pointedly: "Xavi prefers Barca to Spain." A television station wheeled out a doctor who bitterly attacked Guardiola for "forcing" his player to take the risk; in his "professional" opinion, Xavi shouldn't have played for Barca.

The attacks awoke a familiar demon, one that seemed to have been buried and long forgotten, utterly undermined by success at the European Championships: that smidgen of suspicion over Catalan commitment to the Spanish national team. Some claimed that a Catalan would risk missing out for Spain because he was already playing for his "national" team -- FC Barcelona. A Basque at Athletic Bilbao might, too. A Madrileno, an Andalucian or an Asturian would never do the same.

That was a minority opinion; regional divisions have traditionally been exaggerated. The notion that a lack of "national" feeling has historically undermined the selection does not convince.

But even those who accepted Xavi's right to choose and to take a risk -- after all, they judged, he might not aggravate the injury, there was still time before the World Cup, and there was a hell of a lot at stake for his club team -- were concerned. What, they asked, if he did make the injury worse? What would that do to Spain? After all, Guardiola had described him as the club's best midfielder but he was the country's best, too, the player of the tournament at Euro 2008. How could he risk it? How could he do that to us? "Our hopes rest on him," sniffed one newspaper.

The outcry was such that Guardiola had, a little sheepishly, to insist that the injury wasn't that bad. So, too, did Xavi himself. "My calf was sore but there was so much at stake that I wanted to be there for the team," Xavi said. "Besides, it's not serious. I'll be at the World Cup, too." Guardiola agreed. He didn't explicitly say so, but he essentially admitted that he might have exaggerated a little in order to make a point. It was time to get everyone off his, and Xavi's, back.

"Relax," Guardiola said, "Xavi will be in South Africa."

Trouble is, it's not easy to relax. In February 2007, Andres Iniesta's goal beat England. Since then, Spain has played 45 games and lost just once, winning 41, including 10 out of 10 in qualifying. For once, its status as favorite was completely justified. When it demolished France, Thierry Henry complained that his side barely saw the ball and coach Raymond Domenech admitted he did not know how to stop the Spanish. Suddenly, the fear was that he might not need to: Injuries would do the job for him. And for every other national team coach.

With the European Championships followed by last year's treble for Barcelona, the Confederations Cup, the European Super Cup and the World Club Cup, plus a semifinal in this year's Champions League, Xavi has barely stopped in two years. The same is true of Carles Puyol.

And throughout the Spain midfield, Xavi is not alone in struggling. Iniesta still has not returned from a muscle tear. Nor has Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas reappeared since he suffered a fractured shin. Marcos Senna has limped his way through the season. So has his Villarreal teammate Santi Cazorla. Valencia's David Silva and Sevilla's Jesus Navas have had problems. Only Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso has been ever-present.

It's not just in the middle, either. Barely days after Guardiola's attempt to keep everyone calm -- an attempt that didn't entirely work, with most people insisting that either he was fibbing the first time or he was fibbing the second time -- doctors at Liverpool admitted that Fernando Torres might not make it for Spain's first match against Switzerland on June 16.

Two days after that, David Villa was left out of the Valencia side. He needed to rest. Villa has been carrying a shoulder injury, as well as suffering minor problems with both knees, and was shattered physically. Meanwhile, although Bilbao's Fernando Llorente has played extremely well this campaign, Spain's other strikers don't entirely convince: Alvaro Negredo has had a largely disappointing season for Sevilla and Dani Guiza has played only 20 of Fenerbache 32 games, scoring nine times.

Watching Spain can sometimes leave you with the sensation that it is the perfect team. Strong at the back, controlling in midfield, creative in attack and deadly in front of goal. With often-astounding superiority, it has often appeared to be the team that has everything.

Well, almost everything. When Guardiola was forced into a rapid climb down, obliged to put out the fire he had accidentally started, it revealed the one concern the Spanish still have. The risk now is that Spain might just have everything it needs except the one thing it needs more than anything else: a clean bill of health.

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