The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) received a letter Monday that contained a very special invitation: the chance for Spain to play in the Copa América, to be held in Argentina in July. And yes, you did read that right: Spain -- the European champion -- was invited to play in the Copa América, the American championship.
No wonder even Leo Messi was moved to have an opinion. "It's surprising," he said, "because Spain has nothing to do with this Copa."
Well, quite. But now it might have. The Copa América involves 10 countries from the South American Football Confederation plus Mexico and one guest. That last invitee is Japan, which could pull out after the recent earthquake, creating an opportunity for Spain. Japan still has 10 days to make a final decision, so the invitation to Spain might be withdrawn. But for now, it is being taken seriously.
"[W]e've not ruled it out," RFEF president Ángel María Villar said. "I always consider things that are presented with love and affection. I think it is an honor -- and as president I am in favor of going."
Not for the first time, he must be about the only one. Not for the first time, he may well get what he wants anyway. The suggestion that Spain might participate in the Copa América is almost impossible to understand, whichever way you look at it and no matter whose perspective you adopt. It is an absurd, unnatural, counterproductive and impractical idea, where even the advantages come laced with disadvantage. And it might prove to be hugely embarrassing, too.
Not just because Spain is not in the Americas -- which, after all, is supposed to be the point of the Copa América, a competition where the clue is in the name. After all, Japan isn't either. And although Japan's inclusion is also striking and frankly silly, this is even worse, a step toward completely undermining the very nature of international competitions. Not least because Spain would immediately be installed as (one of) the favorites. Spain, champions of America? What next? Barcelona, Scottish Cup winners? What would be the point of the competition?
The proposal might not yet happen, but it is hard to believe it even got this far. Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona has spoken to Villar and the two are powerful allies who have been in their posts for longer than is healthy. They will work for this to get the go-ahead. But even for them, this seems nonsensical on all levels but one.
And why did the participating countries allow it? Even if you can just about understand it when it is a country like Japan that probably won't win the competition, won't get in anyone's way and helps to make up the numbers, why invite a country that can win it? Why invite a country that shouldn't be there anyway to come and play in a tournament, instantly damaging your chances? How must Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia feel? Getting out of their group suddenly would get much harder. As for Argentina and Brazil, the favorites, winning the competition -- their competition, not Spain's -- would be far more difficult.
The stock answer is obvious: to strengthen the tournament, to give it prestige. For both Brazil and Argentina, the opportunity to beat the world champions is an attractive one. By having Spain there, this becomes a kind of surrogate World Cup. It offers up the clash that South Africa didn't: Brazil-Spain, or Argentina-Spain.
Only it doesn't, not really. "Surrogate" is the word. There will be no reclaiming the World Cup, and winning the Copa América is big enough anyway. It is what it says it is: a tournament for the best footballing nations in the Americas -- some of the best in the world. If Spain doesn't end up going, no one will turn to the winners and say, "Yeah, but Spain wasn't there." Look at it the other way around: Would UEFA or its members countenance an invitee at the European Championships? Of course not. It would make a mockery of the competition.
Some have said that the initiation gives the tournament prestige, but does Spain's inclusion really do that? Doesn't it rather say: "We didn't have enough decent countries of our own, so we had to get some ringers in"? Doesn't it say: "Hey, we might not be that good, but don't worry, we're inviting someone who is"? Doesn't it look a bit desperate, like the geeks who try desperately to persuade the class hottie to come to their party? Doesn't it undermine the significance of the South Americans? And if Spain actually wins the tournament, how do you explain that you can't even win your own competition?
So much for prestige.
It does not make much sense from Spain's point of view, either. The idea of being European, world and American champions is undoubtedly an attractive one. But however big an achievement it would be -- and it would of course be huge -- it would largely be a quirk, an anomaly. It is not a necessity, a tradition, a dream or an objective; it is not something anyone in the Spain camp has always wanted to do, not something that moves fans or footballers. Even if Villar said he "loves the idea of playing in Latin America, where they have given so much to [our] football," Spaniards are just not Americans; geographical accident though it may be, it is also a reality.
Nor would that achievement overtake the World Cup for Spain. At best, it would be an accompaniment, an enhancer that the Spanish do not actually need. Lose the Copa América, on the other hand, and it might slightly sully the World Cup success in some eyes, opening Spain up to accusations: "Well, you never had to play Brazil or Argentina in South Africa." It is tempting to conclude that Spain can only lose if it travels to Argentina.
And that's the thing: Spain would have to travel to Argentina. In the summer. Spain's participation in the Copa América is impractical, and might have a negative impact on its defense of the competition it actually should be playing in -- the European Championships in the summer of 2012. Going to the Copa América would represent a fourth consecutive summer with competition football at the international level, after Euro 2008, the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup. It would be a step toward six -- yes, six -- summers in a row without a break. There's Euro 2012 and the 2013 Confederations Cup still to come.
Most of Spain's players are already shattered. Go to Argentina, and the RFEF will find itself on a collision course with clubs and players. Spain's season finishes May 22. In all probability, there will be a Spanish team in the Champions League final May 28. Spain plays friendlies June 4 and 8 in the United States (with players already trying to think up excuses to avoid it). Holidays will start June 9. Should Spain travel to the Copa América, preparation would start around June 24. That's two weeks of holidays, again, when the regulations stipulate a month.
Most clubs start preseason around July 8, while the qualifiers for the Champions League begin July 16. Spain would still be at the Copa América until July 24. On Aug. 10, there is another friendly planned with the national team (although, of course, the RFEF may cancel if the Copa América plan happens). If anyone doubts what the Spanish players really think of the RFEF's globe-trotting friendlies, what they think of loading the fixture list with yet more games that do not form part of classic competition, just witness what happened when La Selección went to Mexico, Argentina and Portugal. Games where they could win nothing but lost rather a lot. But, then, as Messi noted: "Players don't decide."
The solution might be to take a B team, allowing Madrid and Barcelona players, who make up the bulk of the national team and who play more games than anyone else -- next year they will kick off the season in August with the two-game Super Cup, too -- to rest. But that would also exacerbate a situation in which many clubs already feel marginalized by Spain's football authorities -- so willing to bend over backward for the big teams, so unwilling to assist them. Why should those clubs release players? Don't Athletic Bilbao, Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla and the rest have matches, too? Don't their players also want holidays? Don't they need a break? Does the RFEF really care that little about players and clubs?
(Actually, perhaps best not to answer that last one.)
If Spain's "other" players went to Argentina, that would also take us back to the question of prestige. All those arguments above would still stand -- only more so. The Copa América: America's best teams ... and Spain's reserves. Even worse. What's the point of going to the Copa América with a B team? It would be a waste of time, a source of embarrassment rather than pride, for Spain and tournament organizers. Whichever way you look at it, it's impossible to see what anyone stands to gain from Spain's playing in the Copa América.
Except, of course, an awful lot of cash.