If the few days before a tournament starting is known as "the phony war," then it could not have gone much worse for two-time reigning European champion Spain.
First there was a 1-0 friendly defeat against Georgia, just days after Georgia had been hammered 5-1 by Romania. The result did not reflect Spain’s performance, which in the first half at least was dominant, and some commentators suggested that it might knock out any complacency in the squad.
Worse was to come Friday, when goalkeeper David de Gea was reportedly named by a protected witness in connection to an ongoing sexual assault case involving two former Spain Under-21 players. Rumors that De Gea would be sent home from the squad (even though a police source is quoted in El Mundo as saying he has not broken any law) swirled around the Spain camp in the afternoon. It was false.
De Gea spoke out at a press conference, calling the stories “all false” and “in the hands of my lawyers.” He said he never thought about leaving the camp. “It gives me more strength to train even harder," he said. "When something is false there’s more reason not to be affected.”
This saga could not have come at a worse time for coach Vicente del Bosque, particularly as the debate over who will start in goal for Spain appears to have dominated the years since La Furia Roja flopped at the 2014 World Cup.
The fact that there was still some doubt over who should be goalkeeper has astounded Spanish experts. De Gea has been Manchester United’s player of the year for the last three seasons and in normal circumstances would have won far more than his eight Spain caps so far. That he has not is down to the presence of Iker Casillas, whose form for the last two seasons has been patchy at best, but he has a captain’s history, trophies and status.
Del Bosque first met a teenage Casillas when they were together at Real Madrid in the late 1990s, and they won the 2010 World Cup together. The coach suggested that he found it difficult not to pick someone with whom he has shared so much.
“[Iker] would like to go to the Euros, even as a substitute,” Del Bosque told TV show El Hormiguero. “He is a unique player. He is living history in this sport. He gives a perfect example of the Spanish player of this era, always behaving well and representing the success of these years.”
How this latest drama plays out with Del Bosque’s decision is anyone’s guess. But if he did want to buck the form-book and go with Casillas, he now has an excuse.
The decision over who should start in goal sums up the dilemma facing Del Bosque: to stick with the tried-and-tested, or bring through the new wave of talent that has excelled as Spain won the Under-21 European Championships in 2011 and 2013.
His most controversial squad picks were the omissions of Isco and Atletico Madrid’s in-form midfielder Saul Niguez, who were overlooked in preference of Cesc Fabregas and Pedro, both mainstays of Del Bosque’s team that triumphed four years ago. It was Fabregas, when he was 21, who set the Spanish era of dominance on the right track with the winning penalty in Spain’s quarterfinal shootout win over Italy at Euro 2008.
Like Roy Hodgson, who bristles at claims that he is conservative (his desire to prove otherwise may be England’s undoing), the perception of Del Bosque as being "too loyal" may be a case of Casillas-based confirmation bias. Del Bosque fought hard to select Diego Costa for the 2014 World Cup, and stuck with him for much of the qualifiers, but one international goal against Luxembourg and a poor season at Chelsea has seen him drop out of contention.
Del Bosque has been in charge for eight years and in that time, given debuts to 60 players. He fast-tracked Sergio Busquets and Pedro into his team for the 2010 World Cup. During the 2016 qualifiers, Juventus striker Alvaro Morata, Valencia attacker Paco Alcacer, Villarreal right back Mario Gaspar and Celta Vigo winger Nolito all emerged as regular squad picks. Morata and Nolito are in the squad for France, though Alcacer, despite being the top scorer in qualifying, and Gaspar miss out.
Some of the stars of Spain’s Under-21 success–like Jese Rodriguez, Isco, Iker Muniain, Gerard Deulofeu, and Oliver Torres–have not made the step up to the international level.
There are high hopes this summer, meanwhile, that Thiago Alcantara, outstanding in Spain’s two wins, will prove himself on the senior stage.
“The selection for the squad and the team always causes controversy,” wrote Luis Martin in Spanish paper El Pais. “In the end, the only thing we agree on is that it should be Andres Iniesta and 22 others, because the Barcelona man is the only unanimous pick to make.”
Del Bosque was accused of sticking with the old guard for too long on TV show Estudio Estadio earlier in the season.
“We’ve not been resistant to change,” he said. “From 2008 to 2016 there have been many changes. We have not done too badly in qualifying, had decent results. We have a policy of continuity and it is difficult to maintain.”
But how can he replace the irreplaceable? There is no new Xavi (or Xabi Alonso) waiting in the wings, and if it is a concern that the likes of Fabregas and Pedro have had disappointing seasons, Del Bosque is not having it: “In my opinion, really, there has been too much talk of this without any reason," the coach told AS newspaper. "Chelsea did not have a good year, but I believe Cesc did have a good season. Azpilicueta had a good season, and Pedro is Pedro, a player who always does well with the national team.”
The three stars in the current side, though, are more likely to be be De Gea, Thiago and Morata. Thiago and Morata seem like certainties to start Sunday’s opener against Czech Republic. But the events of the last 24 hours raise questions over whether Del Bosque will revert to Casillas as his goalkeeper again after all.