"Vicente del Bosque is a lovely man." Rarely has anyone been quite so damned with faint praise; never has a human strength been so readily and immediately presented as a professional weakness, a quality presumed to be a defect. Del Bosque is indeed a lovely man, a good man -- impeccably polite, overwhelmingly decent. Loyal, humble, kindly, he is like a favorite uncle with a bushy 'tache, a portly belly and the warmest of handshakes. But by extension, by definition, he is not much of a coach. After all, nice guys come last.
That, at least, has long been the facile conclusion drawn. Even when he has been successful -- and he has been extraordinarily successful -- Del Bosque's secret has always been his "niceness." He had what the Spanish describe as a "left hand." a softly, softly approach. As compliments go it could hardly be more backhanded. He just let the players get on with it. Forget tactical nous, inspiration, preparation or insight, he and his success were merely products of his players. His refusal to cultivate cheerleaders, his appearance, his unremarkableness, his distaste for the spotlight and lack of ego only served to reinforce the impression.
When Real Madrid released him in 2003, the president Florentino Perez announced that he wanted a coach with a more modern "librillo." Literally, a notebook. A style, in other words; an image. The kind of image galactic Madrid wished to convey. Perez said he wanted someone tactically aware, at the cutting edge (what he actually wanted was someone he could control). Carlos Queiroz took over with his language skills, tanned good looks and cool suits. Del Bosque had won two league titles and two European Cups (Champions League) in four seasons; Queiroz won nothing. Nor in fact did any of the next five coaches Perez employed.
Yet even while they defended Del Bosque -- and not as many defended him then as like to claim now -- they suspected Perez might be right. Del Bosque had not built a team, he had just kind of stood there while it played. It was the easiest job in the world: who wouldn't win with Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo? If he had a quality it was that he was a "gestor ge grupo," that he had the ability to keep everyone happy -- something that was no mean feat with a squad of galacticos, riven by alarming divisions institutionalized by the club itself. But still that appeared a minor quality. And as for soccer knowledge? Tactical understanding? Nah.
They liked him, which undoubtedly helped, but they weren't sure he was actually all that good a coach. When he was given the Spain job, it was a popular choice but not overwhelmingly so, and many wondered what he had done to deserve it. Being a nice man didn't quite seem enough somehow; had he really proven that much? Madrid's players, rather than their coach, had won the league and European Cup twice each. In Turkey, meanwhile, they said he had failed at the helm of Besiktas.
At the start of the World Cup, following defeat against Switzerland, the former Real Madrid coach John Toshack bitterly attacked Del Bosque, insisting that he had simply turned up and taken over someone else's side -- for club and country. His success had been timing, riding to victory off the back of another man's work. He had been lucky to inherit a winning team.
Luis Aragones said likewise; Del Bosque had taken over the European champions, of course he could win the World Cup. Yes, he kept them happy, but that was it. He showed common sense but common sense is, well, common. It was easy (it was also no coincidence that Toshack and Aragones were Del Bosque's predecessors, opportunistically seeking to underline their own roles, to grab their share of his success). All he did was what anyone would do.
Not true. Slowly, sensibly, Del Bosque has imposed his vision on Spain. After the Final, typically, he praised the players and fled the spotlight. He also insisted that they are a superb collection of people. "There has not," he said, "been a single unpleasant moment." In saying so, he revealed his personality, his deep sense of solidarity, but he also gave ammunition to the theory. There it was again, Del Bosque's only skill: group dynamics.
The impression, though, is false.
This is the greatest generation of players in Spain's history and they are indeed a surprisingly nice group of people. But the World Cup proved that there is more to Del Bosque than just being nice, that the accusation of tactical naivety is a myth.
It is something he should not have had to prove. Few seemed willing to recall the unexpected tactical innovations that took Madrid to its eighth European Cup for example -- the three center-back system, Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado as wing backs, an attacking system that found room for Raul, Fernando Morientes and Nicolas Anelka (whose role in winning that European Cup in 2000 has also been wilfully overlooked), the positioning of Steve McManaman alongside Fernando Redondo in central midfield against Redondo's wishes and from where McManaman was man of the match in the final in Paris.
Since taking over, Del Bosque sought to give Spain greater variety and solidity. He has been particularly keen to give greater width and physical presence to compliment Spain's technical mastery. A Plan B, you might say. But without ruining Plan A.
His squad list was bold. The inclusion of Jesus Navas, Pedro, Javi Martinez, Victor Valdes and Fernando Llorente was to some extent unexpected. It certainly wasn't simply a case of doing what anyone would do. Pedro had never played before for Spain, nor had Martinez. Valdes's inclusion was an act of justice. Meanwhile, when Spain won the European Championships, Sergio Busquets was a Third Division player. Del Bosque played him for all but 29 minutes of the World Cup.
Many thought he simply was not good enough -- in the interests of fairness, this columnist was not convinced -- but he was the tournament's revelation. All over Spain critics attacked Del Bosque's decision to play two deep midfielders, but he stuck to his guns, kept faith in his tactical convictions. Who knows, playing just one might have worked. What we do know is that playing two DID work. Now Spain, Del Bosque's Spain, playing with a slightly different model to Aragones' team, are World Champions.
Del Bosque's defense of Fernando Torres showed an alertness too -- of David Villa's role. As critics attacked Torres, Del Bosque defended him. The three games in which Villa didn't score are the three that Torres didn't start; coming from an inside left position Villa proved more effective. Just look at where he was when he scored against Honduras, Chile and Portugal. And Del Bosque knew that. Yet he also knew when to choose other players. Every single outfield player has played -- something that has fostered conviction, participation and togetherness -- and almost always to good effect. His lineups and substitutions have revealed an impressively accurate reading of games.
Navas came on against Switzerland and almost got the breakthrough, delivering more crosses than any player at the World Cup. Against Portugal the surprise introduction of Llorente -- most were screaming out for Cesc Fabregas -- changed the game, giving Spain much needed depth and penetration to their attack. Against Paraguay, Cesc's appearance opened the game a little and Pedro's introduction (again, unexpected: most wanted Navas, David Silva or Juan Mata) provided cutting edge and the winner. Against Germany, when many thought Torres would finally succeed against a team that opened up and played high up the pitch, Del Bosque foresaw that, in fact, the Germans would not do so and chose Pedro instead. Pedro's freedom of movement was key.
And then there was the World Cup final, in which the introduction of Cesc, high and through the middle, and Torres, drifting left, liberated Andres Iniesta to become the outstanding player in extra time and the man who won the match. When his goal finally came in the 115th minute it was those three players that made it happen -- with a little help from their coach.
Another cliche has been undone. Nice guys do not always come last. Spain are World Cup winners for the first time ever. Vicente del Bosque is a good man. He is also a good manager.