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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Del Bosque taking his chance again

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By Eduardo Alvarez

"Classy, but too slow to play defensive midfield", were the words of Real Madrid's youth team coach after seeing a 17-year old Vicente Del Bosque finish his 45 minute test to join the team.

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The coach oversees the win over Turkey.

It was the generation-altering year of 1968, and of course that wouldn't be the last time that the Castilian would have to see his skills questioned. The unassuming, moustachioed man has had to show more than his fair share of resilience and determination during his footballing career, first in his time as a player and then as a coach.

There's no question Don Vicente was slow on the pitch, painfully so at times, but he managed to hide this limitation through a fantastic sense of positioning. However, his most differentiating characteristic was his extraordinary intelligence: Del Bosque was a master in keeping the rhythm of any given match exactly where his team needed, in the way only Xavi or Andrea Pirlo can do it nowadays. His nickname, El Profesor, alluded to this uncanny ability; as well as to Del Bosque's place of birth - Salamanca, Spain's university town par excellence.

Between 1973 and 1984, that slow midfielder won five La Liga titles and four Copa del Rey trophies with Real Madrid, and started in the 1981 European Cup final loss to Liverpool. His physical limitations became more apparent in his early thirties, and he decided to quit playing in 1984 at the age of 33, getting an assistant coach job with Castilla, Real Madrid's B team, where other coaches such as Rafael Benítez and José Antonio Camacho started their careers.

At that time, under the management of Real Madrid legend Amancio Amaro, the side was producing an amazing cadre of players, including the famous Quinta del Buitre, led by Emilio Butragueño, who would utterly dominate La Liga between 1985 and 1990.

On two different occasions Del Bosque got the Real Madrid job as a caretaker coach: first for only a couple of months after Benito Floro was fired in 1994, and then for a single match when Arsenio Iglesias lost his job in 1996.

In both cases it was clear from all the club's public statements that he would not get the full time job under any circumstances, and Del Bosque seemed to be absolutely on board with this. "My place is with the youth teams", he said in 1996. Despite his long experience as a Real Madrid player, he relished dealing with the media and looked afraid of the amount of stress the first team job generated.

His great chance came in November 1999. Welshman John Toshack had just been sacked by President Lorenzo Sánz in his second spell as Real Madrid gaffer, and two months into the season it was hardly the best moment to hand the team to a stranger. It was the right time for Del Bosque to finally step up and embrace his place in the spotlight with the same affable, down-to-earth way he had assumed when managing his under-21 teams.

During his four years at the helm, Del Bosque won two Ligas, two Champions Leagues and one Intercontinental Cup. At several times, Don Vicente was compared with Sir Alex Ferguson, as it seemed logical that he would continue for a long period of time leading the club he knew so well.

Real Madrid were getting used to winning internationally again with new President Mr. Pérez hiring great players, Jorge Valdano adding his communication brilliance and El Profesor quietly managing the team.

But despite his track record and the good reviews, all El Profesor got for his troubles was a pink slip the day after his second league title in 2003. It wasn't a question of speed this time. "I want to be very sincere, we don't think Vicente Del Bosque is the right man to take Real Madrid to the next level", Florentino Pérez said after giving him the sack.

When you have won pretty much all titles in club football, it is hard to imagine what that next level would be, but we have to remember this was the galáctico Real Madrid and world domination was not enough for the club at that time.

Pérez also mentioned that he was looking for someone with a more "modern" approach to the game and its tactics; Del Bosque seemed to be too old school, too low profile and too difficult to be marketed successfully. Apparently, Pérez could not bear the thought of ultra-galáctico David Beckham being managed by the extremely common, almost vulgar Del Bosque.

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Del Bosque was a success at Real Madrid.

For all his management experience with large corporations, Pérez did not understand that nothing is more modern that intelligence and that is something El Profesor had by the gallon.

In those four years, Del Bosque had presented us with a "How to deal with prima donnas" manual. He had troubled stars as prominent as the 2000 version of Nicolas Anelka, or the group of party-happy Brazilians, who were rarely in decent shape after El Profesor was made redundant.

He was able to make most players contribute, a hard feat when you read the names and resumes of his players in those four years. The fact that Del Bosque himself was not a prima donna made a few decision-makers believe that dealing with that dressing room was a walk in the park and that the job could be easily done by someone less experienced, or maybe more "modern".

Del Bosque left, and the club spent three long years without a single title, the galáctico fad becoming just a bad joke when you saw the star-studded team unable to beat theoretically inferior opposition. El Profesor had an unsuccessful spell with Besiktas, turned down other jobs and became a regular and very insightful radio commentator.

But suddenly another chance came. Del Bosque got the Spanish job, although it was probably not how he would have preferred to get it. His friend Fernando Hierro, now Director of the Spanish FA, announced the decision when Luis Aragonés was still on the job and Euro 2008 was about to begin - not what one would call good timing. But, after winning the competition and ending 44-years of drought, Aragonés left for Fenerbahce and Del Bosque started his tenure with a winning and entertaining team.

That was a positive change for Del Bosque. Used to joining the party as a caretaker manager, he inherited a well-oiled machine and didn't tinker too much with it. And his performance so far has been spotless: Saturday's difficult win over Turkey leaves Spain on top of the group with a perfect five-game record. For the first time in a long while, the environment surrounding the national team is calm and quiet, despite the occasional Raúl reference, and Del Bosque won't be the one to break the spell.

Once you take a look at his resume, there's no doubt the man from Salamanca knows what he is doing. He was not very fast as a player, and might not be very "modern" as a coach either, but Spain is confident of its chances of World Cup glory with El Profesor in charge.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009