MALAGA, Spain -- Roberto Soldado had waited long enough already; he wasn't going to wait any more. He made his Spain debut back in 2007 and played just twice, without scoring. For months people had been pleading with the Spain coach Vicente del Bosque to return him to the selección but the coach ignored them. Soldado could have been forgiven for thinking that he was never going to make it, that maybe there was something he didn't know -- some hidden factor that counted against him.
It was hard to imagine: it was Del Bosque, after all, who as director of Real Madrid's youth academy traveled to Valencia, visiting the Don Bosco school to persuade the then 14 year old to leave his home city behind. And yet, it was natural to wonder. The goals went in, one after the other, over and over. He'd been impressive enough at Osasuna for Madrid to bring him back and there were 20 in his final season for Getafe, 2009-2010, 25 the following season for Valencia, and 20 already this season -- in just 29 games. But still the call didn't come.
Curiously, when it finally did, it coincided with his worst run as a Valencia player: five games without a goal. It was time for him to make his "debut;" it was as if those two games had never happened. Not only was that a long time ago but it belonged to a different era -- to the days when Spain didn't win anything. When people awaited Spain's inevitable collapse not its inevitable victory.
Soldado did not start for Spain in its 5-0 win over Venezuela in Málaga on Wednesday night and when he did come on at halftime, he missed a penalty. It was one of the worst penalties you could wish to see. But still. He had been on the pitch barely five minutes when he got his first. A second followed soon after. And he was then sent racing through soon after that. He went round the goalkeeper and was taken down by Fernando Amorebieta. When he missed the penalty, his weak shot pushed away by Dani Hernández, he appeared to have missed the chance.
You couldn't help thinking: oh, Roberto, you fool. You'll never get a better opportunity. There was something almost comic about it. Only he did get a better opportunity. Another wonderful assist, a third goal and a "debut" hat trick. Thursday morning, as he boarded the train back to Madrid, Soldado was still beaming and still holding the match ball, signed by his teammates.
Back in London, you could imagine how Fernando Torres felt. Even Del Bosque had finally given in: the national team coach had stuck by Torres even as the those calling for him to be left out of the squad grew in number and the evidence racked up against him. His patience, though, had a limit.
Torres scored the most important goal in Spanish soccer history, getting the winner at Euro 2008, and that contribution weighed heavily. So did his athleticism, the fact that he offered something that others did not. Torres' character played a part as well -- he is serious about his soccer, unassuming with his talent, and extremely well liked -- as did his generosity. During the World Cup David Villa, Spain's all-time top scorer, was quick to insist that his goal-scoring contribution would be lower without Torres alongside him. He was right too. Torres was not just there for his goals.
Ultimately, though, that was what he would be measured on. Del Bosque had admitted that he was "concerned" about his crisis at Chelsea. He more than anyone else wanted the striker to return to form. But three in 34 league games since arriving at Stamford Bridge was just not enough. Last night, in his normal understated way, the Spain coach made a key point: "Roberto finished off what the others made," he said. "And that is what a striker is there for."
Whichever way you looked at it, he was right. Torres has not been doing so and Soldado cannot do so alone.
The Valencia striker scored a hat trick, but all three goals came from perfect assists; two from the left, one from the right. His movement had been good; the moves had been even better. This was an awe-inspiring performance from Spain, perhaps the best it has played under Del Bosque. The ball was moved round with speed and precision, the play mixed up superbly: from the aerial threat of the opening minutes -- Ramos, Piqué and Llorente all had good chances with headers -- to the speed of passing across the turf thereafter. From the slick, close exchanges that define this team, the ball ping-ping-pinging its way out of corners and through inexistent gaps, to the 50-yard deliveries onto waiting toes.
David Silva was superb, Spain's outstanding player in the first half. He scored a brilliant goal that showcased a part of his game rarely seen -- acceleration and directness -- and a part of his game seen often: the precision of the finish. Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets' control was absolute. Xavi was on the bench but it didn't matter: the succession is secure. When Santi Cazorla came on his touch was telling and true. Jesus Navas, the only real winger in the squad, reached the byline to provide an assist. Both fullbacks gave goals -- Jordi Alba has resolved the left-back problem. There was so much variety, such richness. Juan Mata and Thiago didn't get on.
There was even room for 19-year-old Iker Muniaín to make his debut -- and he was typically ballsy. Another striker. This was only the third time the selección have played without Torres and Villa under Del Bosque, but there is so much strength in depth that Spain have turned the normal question on its head. Instead of asking "who shall we put in the squad?", they ask: "who shall we leave out?" The debate about the four (?) forwards has been particularly intense. Torres, Villa, Soldado, Alvaro Negredo (forced to pull out of this squad through injury despite being called up), Muniaín, Fernando Llorente ...?
Last night, in the final friendly before Del Bosque names his preliminary squad, a resolution drew closer. Roberto Soldado had waited five years; he wasn't going to wait five minutes more. Forty-five minutes and three goals -- he had made quite a case. He was the last player to leave the Rosaleda last night. It was almost one in the morning. He had the match ball in his hand. And a ticket to Poland in his back pocket.