BBC Spain Football tables
Spain’s run of success is no coincidence. Anyone who has seen their youth sides in recent years will have been struck by the excellence of their passing – not only the technique of receiving, delivering and moving into position to receive again, but the patience of their play, and their commitment to a certain idea of football.
This question of identity is fundamental. Football is such a fluid game, with myriad options available to the man on the ball. Defining which of these options is preferable determines the objective and the style of the team.
Tactics have their importance, but they spring from the central thing – the idea.
As he set about rebuilding the German national team, he had to think long and hard about what he was trying to do. His conclusion was that Germany had to be aggressive and attacking, playing high tempo, physical football.
Putting this into practice entailed a tactical switch – the belated adoption of the back four for German sides at all levels. His big regret was the lack of players with genuine, special ability.
They have since appeared – a process surely eased by the fact that the central idea had been well defined.
This question of identity is making Chilean football especially interesting at the moment. After falling well short of qualifying for the World Cups of 2002 and 2006, Chile were the neutrals’ favourites two years ago in South Africa.
They currently top the South American qualification table, and with a third of the campaign gone already have half the points necessary for a slot in Brazil 2014.
And the clubs are looking stronger too. Over the past decade it has been rare for Chilean teams to get out of the group stage in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. Now Universidad de Chile have reached the semi-finals in two of the last three years, as well as winning the continent’s Europa League equivalent.
Universidad Catolica reached the quarter-finals of last year’s Libertadores, while Union Espanola made a good impression getting to this year’s second round.
Financial changes underpin this progress, with Chile’s clubs moving towards a business model which, if no panacea, is an improvement on the administrative free-for-all that ruled before. Events on the pitch, however, have been even more interesting.
In early 2004 I was told by Elias Figueroa, Chile’s all-time best player, that his country’s football lacked a defined identity. “We’ve tried to imitate Argentina, ” he told me, “we’ve tried to imitate Brazil. We’ve tried to imitate Germany and Spain. There’s been no continuity.”
More than eight years later he might see things differently. Much has changed since the reign of Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine coach who took Chile to the last World Cup.
Bielsa, who has gone on to success with Athletic Bilbao in Spain, has a fixed idea of how he wants his side to play – high tempo, in the opponent’s half of the field, with a front three and a constant quest to create two-against-one situations down the flanks.
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