When you are as special as world champions Spain, it’s no surprise two games without a win is viewed as a mini-crisis.
But the emphatic response of Vicente del Bosque’s side to World Cup qualification concerns reminds us they are close to football immortality. A fourth consecutive major tournament win in Brazil 2014 would be a simply incredible achievement.
In the spirit of consistency I should reiterate my prediction for how the 2014 tournament will unfold. That the South Americans teams on their continent will be a considerable force is practically unquestionable. That Lionel Messi and Argentina might be a sharper bet than Brazil is my suggestion.
Spain are the intriguing team among the favourites, presuming they make the finals of course.
When I arrived in Paris on the eve of the colossal qualifying match between France and Spain, the danger of Spain failing to qualify was a real one. Allowing Olivier Giroud to equalise in Madrid in the 93rd minute had been followed by a second 1-1 ‘failure’ in Group I; Finland’s Teemu Pukki doing France a huge favour with his sudden strike in Gijon.
But the genuine concerns of Spanish fans were soothed in the pivotal game in the Stade de France. It was all about composure and class. A controlled build-up, no panic, minor tweaks. Xavi and Alonso back in, Villa still a real striker not the ‘false’ option that worries some Spanish fans.
Watching them train before the match, the air of calm and assurance was unmistakable. Watching them take the sting out of the improved French team was close to a masterclass in control and belief.
Spain missed one or two good chances, yes. And could well have fallen behind. But the fact is they didn’t. And Pedro could have been awarded a penalty in the first half, before forcing home his second half winner.
20 matches unbeaten. A record 58 wins out of 70 for del Bosque. 25 qualifying victories and no defeats from 27 games. World and European champions. These are statistics that make it churlish to ever question this Spanish squad. The fact we sometimes do is more about the forensic nature of football analysis than because of cracks in their armoury.
And while it still cannot be ruled out they will finish second in the group, the prospect of facing them in a play-off is a nightmare.
But assessing the achievements and potential of this Spanish squad and the joy they bring to their people cannot be divorced from their club football. The strength of Barcelona and Real Madrid has been a significant part of the success story but the emergence of talent at smaller clubs and the current quality of La Liga has helped them break records and make history.
It has been worth considering how difficult it would be to beat a second choice Spanish team, even a third. Michu, one of the outstanding English Premier League players of the season with Swansea, cannot even make the squad. One of my favourite players, the brilliant Benat of Real Betis, has had limited opportunities. But there doesn’t seem to be any griping. Spain are the very essence of a team, with stars all willing to serve the bigger cause. Crucially, this was ingrained in them from a young age.
So might the biggest threat to their continued dominance be the story emerging that Brussels has simply had enough with public funding of debt-ridden clubs. The increasing disapproval of Spain’s debts being eased by Eurozone taxpayers while the clubs are propped up with public money.
The quality of football may be high but so is the frightening level of debt – over three billion Euros and it’s not going down.
Could great clubs such as Deportivo, Mallorca and Zaragoza be destroyed? Others at the level of Valencia may finally be unable to compete at Champions and Europa League level if too many quality players have to be sold. These are clubs who are not proving able to survive unaided and there are more at Spain’s top level.
Attendances continue to be an issue not because of apathy – who wouldn’t want to watch La Liga? – but in Spain the option to spend money on a football match has become increasingly seen as a luxury that cannot be afforded. While they are not the only fans in this situation it has become an acute problem with the economy on its knees. What a contrast to the national team standing proud and tall.
And the grumblings of Spain’s use of Eurozone money is not just coming from members of the European Parliament. Bayern Munich are an example of a club whose board are becoming more vocal in their criticism of Spanish clubs ‘getting away with it’ while the trophies continue to fill the cabinets.
Worldwide Television rights continue to be dwarfed by the money made in the English Premier League, which may remain slightly surprising as quality between the two leagues is a source of debate. There’s no definite answer as to which is best…apart from the money generated.
But club football in Spain remains able to attract investment. The website @laliganews.tv has recognised international interest in Spanish club football is often underestimated. With two of the world’s big three clubs involved, a fascinating battle for European places this season and an endless flow of stories good and bad, who can blame them?
While the clubs brace themselves for difficult times (or at least should be bracing themselves, some will never learn) the national team glide on, hiccups apparently over.
At some stage their glorious run has to end. Nothing in football lasts forever. Maybe as early as 2014 when even a great European team might find glory in South America beyond them.
And when that happens where will Spanish fans get their comfort and joy if clubs are finally paying for years of living way beyond their means?
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Al Jazeera broadcasts into 300 million homes across the globe, in 130 countries and millions more online at www.aljazeera.com. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter: LeeW_Sport