World Soccer
Tuesday October 13th, 2009

If no news is good news, then it's tempting to conclude that good news is no news at all. Not when it's this familiar, anyway, because when it's this familiar, the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

Spain has already qualified for next summer's World Cup finals, securing its place in South Africa with an eighth successive victory last month. A 3-0 win against Estonia in Mérida followed a 5-0 hammering of Belgium in La Coruña and offered yet another demonstration of the Selección's talents. But Spain has a problem: It is just too good. It has become boringly brilliant.

During the fortnight of the last international break, the national team only made the front cover of the country's best-selling newspaper, Marca, twice -- three times if you include the news that coach Vicente del Bosque was set to be offered a new contract by the Spanish Football Federation. It made the same number of appearances on the cover of the other national sports daily, AS.

Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez promising to turn the Santiago Bernabéu into a footballing version of the Guggenheim Museum; Pérez promising to build a Real Madrid theme park; Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi maybe missing out on South Africa; Atlético Madrid's early-season crisis; Jorge Valdano hinting that Franck Ribéry might turn up at Madrid one day; Diego Maradona in meltdown; Rubén de la Red saying he doesn't know when he will be able to play again; Raúl being likened to an 18-year-old ... all of these were deemed more important than news of the European champions.

Inside, the papers were scrabbling around for something to fill their pages. One "story" showed how Madrid was on course to finish the season with a record tally of goals by racking up 110 -- something that, the piece helpfully pointed out, "Barcelona didn't manage." For those who wondered how the paper worked that out just one game into the season, it had factored in Madrid's preseason results too -- a method that would see Villarreal, 27-0 winner in one particular summer preparation game, on course for 400 goals or so!

Spain was not completely ignored, of course. And those covers that were dedicated to del Bosque's side expressed their delight, with Marca describing it as a "machine" and AS simply dubbing it "the best" after the Belgium game.

"Now go and win the World Cup," Marca ordered, once qualification was in the bag with victory over Estonia. "Let's go get South Africa's gold," implored AS. But it certainly was striking that in a week of club inactivity, the country's cruise to the finals didn't lead the agenda.

In a curious sort of way, it was also the biggest compliment you could pay the national side, the greatest of eulogies you could hand to del Bosque and his players. Maybe 'twas always thus. There was, after all, none of the scandal that the media loves, no meat, no bones to pick over. No confrontations or controversy, no shock results. Just very, very good ones. Again. There was just an excellent football team.

One columnist admitted that he "missed" the fun and games of the Luis Aragonés era and another complained that, while Aragonés turned every squad get-together into a circus, with del Bosque, there was calm normality, without compromising on the style and results that -- by the end -- Aragonés' team achieved.

In fact, what was most "normal" of all was the results. Tumbleweeds blew past where once there were furious dialectical battles driven by poor results. On one hour-long debate show, a pundit started to whine about how Cesc Fàbregas should play more for the national team.

So he was asked if he'd drop Xabi Alonso to put him in. No, he said. Andrés Iniesta? No. Xavi? No. Marcos Senna? No. David Silva? "Maybe we're just debating for the hell of it," he conceded. "Everything's going so well." Spain had just inflicted Belgium's worst defeat in 25 years.

Besides, three days later, Fàbregas did play. And he scored and played wonderfully. But he was not alone. Del Bosque made changes and yet the result stayed the same. Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata got their chances -- and both scored. It was typical of how things are going.

What alterations have been carried out have been done so smoothly as to alter nothing and that has bought the coach credit. Gerard Piqué came into the squad and performed as if he'd been there for years, even adding two goals; Osasuna fullback Nacho Monreal was called up and no one complained; barely a word was said when Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente (as opposed to Joseba Llorente of Villarreal) became part of the squad. And as for the Raúl debate, it's been forgotten by all but the most myopic of Raulistas.

Everything is so, well, normal. Great results and performances are just what happen, and people have, to some extent, stopped noticing. It is a measure of just how successful Spain has become, how consistently excellent its performances have been, that so little fuss was made about it, how few arguments there were. And that is the thing, of course. Take a step back and what makes Spain extraordinary is the sheer relentlessness of its success.

When the Spaniards were beaten by the U.S. in the Confederations Cup semifinal, it was their first defeat in 36 games -- a joint world record. They had won Euro 2008 in incontestable style under Aragonés, and del Bosque had picked up where his predecessor had left off. Under him, Spain has won 18 of 19 matches and its record in qualifying stands at nine out of nine, with 23 scored and just three conceded. Though he has played in only eight group games, David Villa is tied for third in scoring in European qualifying.

However, one nagging doubt remains: Has Spain beaten any really great sides since the European Championship? With the exception of England -- beaten 2-0 in a friendly in Sevilla -- it is tempting to say no. But, off the back of its success at Euro 2008, results do make a powerful case to present it as favorites in South Africa. And it's not just about the results. Everything has all been done in style, too, with a confidence, a swagger and a conviction -- and one that hints at the fact that this side is even better than the one that beat Germany in Vienna.

As one columnist put it, Spain's destruction of Belgium was a retort, a message "for all of those who think it's not possible to play like the angels ... for those who think of football as a defensive pursuit ... for the Taliban of the tactics board ... for the coaches who lock away their creative players ... for those who don't like beautiful football." He would say that, of course, but he had a point.

Even defeated Belgium goalkeeper Jean-François Gillet enjoyed it. "Getting beaten by Spain enriches you, it allows you to see things that you never normally see on the pitch," he said. "It must be great fun to play for them. They have great control of the ball, they move it extraordinarily fast, and everyone runs. It's very hard to make them struggle at all because they have the ball the whole time. With the football they play, they're capable of anything."

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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