Xabi Alonso and Xavi were left out of Spain's squad this week, and they couldn't have been happier. Staying at home was a reward, not a rejection. The world and European champions traveled to face Panama, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was the game no one wanted to play. This time there was no international break, just a midweek date set aside: a match (which Spain won 5-1) crowbarred into the middle of a busy schedule.
Most European countries didn't go far, but Spain's Federation, the RFEF, chose to make its players cross the Atlantic. To play a friendly. In extreme heat and humidity. With a six-hour time difference. Against a team whose own coach, the former Real Oviedo and Málaga striker Julio Dely Valdés, admitted would need a "miracle" to win. In Cesc Fabregas' words, this was a game that: no sirve de nada. Roughly, it was pointless. It has no use.
Fabregas quickly contextualized, explaining what he meant. In black and white they looked worse than he had probably intended. In headlines, even more so. And yet reading it back, the words remain striking. "The journey and the game is midway through the season and it is not something that [the players are] entirely grateful for," he said. "In terms of preparation no sirve de nada because the next competitive game is not until February."
It is even more pointless in terms of preparation without two of the three first-choice midfielders of course. And, when it came to it, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque was cautious with other players, too: Andres Iniesta and Fabregas shared half a game each, Sergio Ramos only came on for half an hour, Juan Mata only played half and Santi Cazorla didn't play at all -- all of them decisions based on protecting players.
With friendlies like these, the normal discourse is turned on its head: the problem for players was not not playing, it was playing. Fans of clubs that are not represented complain that their players have not been called up; fans clubs that are represented complain that their players have been called up. Some saw politics and an attempt to be even handed in the decision to rest one player each from Madrid and Barcelona.
That they suggested as much is revealing of the attitude toward the national team in Spain -- even though they are world and European chaperons. It is still about the clubs.
One club coach described the week's preparation as "pointless." Players were not back with their clubs until Thursday, ready for games on Saturday or Sunday. The Spanish media likes to talk of the "FIFA virus" striking clubs sides down. After the last international break, which was at least a break for competitive fixtures, Madrid ended up with all three left backs out injured. Statistics show Barcelona suffers significantly after international breaks.
Del Bosque justified the trip by arguing that the longer journey was not necessarily an additional problem. "When we play in Europe the players sometimes get back at 5 a.m., and they have not slept properly," he said, "whereas [in transatlantic games] they sleep well and are rested, arriving back at 11 a.m." Yet his decision to leave Xavi and Alonso out showed his sensitivity to the players' condition. He had, for example, called the Betis coach to ask him about Beñat Exteberría. It is a call he repeats with a number of clubs.
You expect club coaches to complain -- there is no reason why they should care about the national team -- but Fabregas' comments revealed that players, too, are not entirely happy. Senior players whose place in the side is secure in particular. It is something about which some of them have long since complained privately. Not least because this is a recurring theme. The federation president has long courted political support in Latin America and courted money, too.
Since August 2010, Spain have traveled to play Mexico, Argentina, USA, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and now Panama. Given those conditions, the fact that they are world champions is even more impressive. The fee the RFEF charged for playing Panama: three million Euros. Spain might well have argued that they were worth it: they played brilliantly in the 5-1 win. Pedro got two more more goals, Sergio Ramos hit a superb free kick and David Villa scored, too.
This week even the player who most should have felt excited about the game might have been forgiven for wondering why he bothered. Athletic Bilbao's Markel Susaeta was called into the squad for the first time. Asked about the importance of the game, what with the trip and everything, he stumbled a bit and tied himself in knots. "We still represent ... er, er, a thing," he said.
They were onto him like a shot. There it was again, laid bare: the desire to feel offended, the obsession with seeking fault lines and hidden agendas. Immediately the old debate, the old accusations, the old suspicions reared their pathetic heads once more. Why? Because Susaeta is Basque.
Never mind that this was a young player put in an awkward position, never mind that he rambled and got tongue tied, never mind that he was making his debut and as such was in new territory, never mind that he's a relatively shy person anyway, probably nervous, never mind that the question was leading and the point he was making was ambiguous -- Spain represents a type of football and, well, Spain -- and never mind asking what he meant by "a thing".
Never mind all that. The accusations were pointed, implying that he, too, didn't want to be there but for different reasons. Political reasons. He had not, they said, wanted to say the word "Spain." Here was a Basque who should not be playing for Spain because he didn't feel Spanish and wouldn't utter the country's name, they said. Had a madrileño or an andaluz said as much it would have been dismissed as nothing, just another slip from that not-entirely-rarely breed: the inarticulate footballer. But, no, this was far worse. He was treated as if he was a traitor. Even former players attacked him. He didn't want to be there. And he didn't deserve to be there.
But Markel Susaeta did. Probably more than most of his teammates. On Wednesday night in Panama, Markel Susaeta made his debut for Spain. And scored.