Injuries threaten to derail Spain
It happened in the build-up to Barcelona's crucial clash with Villarreal on May 1. Barcelona had just been knocked out of the Champions League by Inter Milan; fail to win against Villarreal three days later and it would effectively be knocked out of the league title race, too.
In the end, Xavi played. Barcelona won 4-1. The title race was still on. But, some said, what Guardiola had done was not. Many saw sneaky mind games in his pregame comments. Others saw a barefaced lie. After the match, Guardiola insisted that Xavi was indeed injured -- in fact, he had a tear in his calf -- but that, given what was at stake, he had risked his physical well-being for the sake of his club. He had risked more than that.
"Xavi played with an injury that could cost him the World Cup, but he showed his commitment," Guardiola said. "That's why he's the best midfielder in the history of the club."
The reaction was as immediate and as fearful as it was furious. If he was risking the World Cup, then commitment to his club meant a lack of commitment to his country. One headline spoke for all in declaring pointedly: "Xavi prefers Barca to Spain." A television station wheeled out a doctor who bitterly attacked Guardiola for "forcing" his player to take the risk; in his "professional" opinion, Xavi shouldn't have played for Barca.
The attacks awoke a familiar demon, one that seemed to have been buried and long forgotten, utterly undermined by success at the European Championships: that smidgen of suspicion over Catalan commitment to the Spanish national team. Some claimed that a Catalan would risk missing out for Spain because he was already playing for his "national" team -- FC Barcelona. A Basque at Athletic Bilbao might, too. A Madrileno, an Andalucian or an Asturian would never do the same.
That was a minority opinion; regional divisions have traditionally been exaggerated. The notion that a lack of "national" feeling has historically undermined the selection does not convince.
But even those who accepted Xavi's right to choose and to take a risk -- after all, they judged, he might not aggravate the injury, there was still time before the World Cup, and there was a hell of a lot at stake for his club team -- were concerned. What, they asked, if he did make the injury worse? What would that do to Spain? After all, Guardiola had described him as the club's best midfielder but he was the country's best, too, the player of the tournament at Euro 2008. How could he risk it? How could he do that to us? "Our hopes rest on him," sniffed one newspaper.
The outcry was such that Guardiola had, a little sheepishly, to insist that the injury wasn't
"Relax," Guardiola said, "Xavi will be in South Africa."
Trouble is, it's not easy to relax. In February 2007,
With the European Championships followed by last year's treble for Barcelona, the Confederations Cup, the European Super Cup and the World Club Cup, plus a semifinal in this year's Champions League,
And throughout the Spain midfield, Xavi is not alone in struggling. Iniesta still has not returned from a muscle tear. Nor has Arsenal's
It's not just in the middle, either. Barely days after Guardiola's attempt to keep everyone calm -- an attempt that didn't entirely work, with most people insisting that either he was fibbing the first time or he was fibbing the second time -- doctors at Liverpool admitted that
Two days after that,
Watching Spain can sometimes leave you with the sensation that it is the perfect team. Strong at the back, controlling in midfield, creative in attack and deadly in front of goal. With often-astounding superiority, it has often appeared to be the team that has everything.
Well, almost everything. When Guardiola was forced into a rapid climb down, obliged to put out the fire he had accidentally started, it revealed the one concern the Spanish still have. The risk now is that Spain might just have everything it needs except the one thing it needs more than anything else: a clean bill of health.