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Pressure builds on Del Bosque

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It happened on Nov. 10 2007 in Santiago, Chile, and became an instant hit. The Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was addressing the Ibero-American summit when Venezuela President Hugo Chavez began interrupting him, accusing Zapatero's predecessor José María Aznar of being a "fascist,"and "lower than snakes." Zapatero is no ally of Aznar but requested a little respect and insisted that, after all, Aznar had been democratically elected. It made no difference; Chavez kept on. And that was when Spain's King, Juan Carlos I, intervened.

Not for him the typical politeness of protocol. Instead, using the familiar form of "you," he spat back: "¿¡por qué no te callas?!" Why don't you just shut up?! At first there was an intake of breath. Some commentators criticized the King; it wasn't very majestic. But most Spaniards thought it was brilliant -- Chavez had hurt national sensibilities, and his comments didn't deserve a reasoned response. Someone had finally socked it to him. In the Spanish vernacular, someone had shown the Spanish had a pair. Soon "¿¡por qué no te callas?!" was everywhere. There were ring tones and t-shirts and movie clips and everyone was copying it.

Now, it's back. Again, national sensibilities have been hurt. This time, though, the man to blame, the man on the end of a blunt "¿¡por qué no te callas?!" from the sports daily Marca, the country's best-selling newspaper, is Luis Aragonés. The former Spain coach, employed as a World Cup commentator by the television channel Al Jazeera, hasn't so much been sticking the knife in as sticking it in and twisting it about, making sure it hurts like hell. And some are not happy with him -- he is, they say, an opportunist attacking Spain at an inopportune time.

It all started after Spain's opening match, when Aragonés came out and accused la selección of taking it easy, saying that there was a "lack of conviction" about them. Worse, he said, "the problems have been coming for some time." Suddenly, everyone was on red alert. The media found in Aragonés an easy source of biting criticism and kept a close eye on his broadcasts, a useful tool -- a pantomime villain if things go well for Spain, an oracle if they go badly. Almost the first comments to appear after the next two matches were the former coach's. Sometimes, his opinion appeared quicker than that of the current coach.

When Spain won the second game against Honduras, Aragonés shrugged: "I don't have much confidence in Spain." And when they beat Chile, he begrudgingly said that they had "improved a bit" but that he still was not convinced.

Now, he is at it again. And despite the feigned distaste, in the build up to the Portugal game tomorrow night, the front cover of the country's best-selling newspaper is dedicated to his thoughts: "I am not optimistic."

"Spain have not been up to their billing because they have not had the speed and possession necessary," Aragonés said. "And if Portugal can get the ball they can beat us comfortably."


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Aragonés has always been bitter and irritable, a famously odd and often very grumpy man. He was furious at the manner in which he was replaced as the national team coach, believing that the Spanish Federation negotiated with Del Bosque behind his back, even though he had already said he would be leaving after Euro2008. He seemed to have sworn revenge on the current coach and Fernando Hierro -- the RFEF's sporting director and the man who chose Del Bosque.

Aragonés's criticisms were largely self-serving. After years of divisions, both real and imagined, some said he had destroyed the very unity that his own Euro2008 success had apparently cemented. Weren't we supposed to be all in this together? When he said "coming for some time," what he really meant was "coming since I left." One commentator put it in simple terms: "Luis says he is not optimistic about Spain's future. Translation: he fears they might win the World Cup and that's the last thing he wants."

It was the truth but maybe not the whole truth. Aragonés is not alone; bit-by-bit others have joined in, bit-by-bit the doubts have emerged. Spain came into the World Cup having lost just once in 49 matches and immediately made it twice. It came in by picking Poland apart 6-0 in a friendly, the classic expression of their tiki-taka, ball-playing style, but now its being accused of abandoning its style, primarily by the sports newspaper AS but also by the Barcelona ideologue Johan Cruyff. And many are pointing to one thing above all: Del Bosque's insisted on a "double-pivot" made up of two defensive midfielders. Aragonés only played with one.

Nor is Aragonés alone. Another of Del Bosque's successors, the former Madrid coach John Toshack, who is capable of being just as bitter as Aragonés, accused the Spain boss of being a dreadful manager who failed in Turkey and only succeeded at Madrid because he inherited a good team. By which of course he meant: his team. It was seen as a gratuitous attack and most people sprung to Del Bosque's defense -- not least because he is one of the nicest guys in the game -- but for some the doubt lingered: what if Toshack's words contained a kernel of truth? What if Aragonés's did too?

Now, as if having predecessors attacking him was not bad enough, Del Bosque also has a successor after him. After all, the man in charge pf Portugal is Carlos Queiroz, who replaced Del Bosque at Madrid. Del Bosque had won two leagues and two Champions Leagues in four years; Queiroz won nothing. Nor, indeed, did the six men who followed him under Madrid president Florentino Perez. But despite the difficulties in qualifying, the ferociously attacks and gleefully dismissive tone taken whenever his name turns up, things are going well for Queiroz's Portugal now. Too well; suddenly people in Spain are being forced to rethink the man they loved to laugh at.

This certainly won't be easy for Spain. "Portugal are almost perfect defensively," Aragonés says," they have to be taken very seriously as candidates." They are unbeaten in 18 games and have not conceded a single goal at the World Cup -- the only side who can say so. Portugal has conceded a single goal in 11 games, in a friendly with Cameroon which they won anyway. And then there's Cristiano Ronaldo of course. In fact, to judge by the Spanish press you could be forgiven for thinking that Spain are playing against Ronaldo, not Portugal.

Queiroz's failure has often been held up as the best proof that Del Bosque was a great coach and that Queiroz was nothing short of a sham. Now, Queiroz's success could begin to undermine that; it provides him with the chance to "prove" his Spanish critics wrong. For Del Bosque the fear could be that it could "prove" his critics right.

This match is huge for a generation of Spaniards who, despite the doubts, are confronted with probably the greatest opportunity they have ever had to win the World Cup. For Del Bosque it is huge too -- not only because of the chance to win the World Cup, which remains the key, but precisely because of the doubts that linger. Precisely because of the men who attack him from both sides -- predecessors and his successor. They are the men whose success and failure help to condition the perceptions surrounding del Bosque, whose achievements help to define his legacy.

Lose and a momentary rehabilitation of Queiroz will bring renewed doubts about Del Bosque. Win and the temptation could be to let the moderate mask slip and snap back at his critics; win in style, Spain's style, and the temptation could be to respond with a bitter "¿¡por qué no te callas?!" Only that's not Del Bosque's style and never has been. After all, when he was released by Madrid to bring in Queiroz, he was deeply, deeply hurt. Player, coach, youth director, and then manager, Real Madrid was Del Bosque's home and he had been booted out. But Del Bosque never said a word.

Unlike Aragonés. Or the King.