Spain is Great, But it’s Not a Utopia.
Spain, as a footballing nation gets a lot right. Probably more than most. Yet there are plenty of areas to improve. And in some ways, when other elements of a footballing culture are so strong, you can paper over the cracks. Much like a Sunday league player who smokes forty a day and is several stone overweight, but is so intelligent that his passing and moving cannot be matched by opponents. You speculate how good “Darryl the Barrel” might be if he were to take things seriously and go on a fitness and diet regimen. That’s kind of how I view Spain now. To think that they’re already this good, and yet have so much holding them back.
We’ll look at what they get right, and what they get wrong. When I write about football in other countries, it is always important to preface it by saying that nowhere is perfect. And that some things may not always transfer well from one country to another due to vastly different cultures, geographies, or climates. In most cases, the football of a nation is shaped by cultural outlook, geography, and weather. Typically, long ball, counterattack, fast football was played by colder countries in Northern Europe, such as in the British Isles and in Scandinavia. For generations, the game would develop in these countries with little outside influence. Sure, the Brits may have exported football and put their twist on it, as the early footballing missionaries, but compared to today, idea sharing was practically non-existent. With satellite TV and internet, it is possible to spend all day watching live football from all over the world, allowing for new concepts and ideas from alien lands to permeate the footballing zeitgeist.
This is in stark contrast to the days of old where the only time different football cultures mixed were international tournaments. Even then, very few were privy to the occasion. There have been lots of teams to tour the world in the olden days, such as Corinthians, who became the inspiration for their Brazilian namesake. Since those days, it’s fair to say one has had considerably more success than the other. Tours were hardly enough to convince and change minds when compared to the instant communication technology of today. Maybe England losing to Hungary at Wembley in the 60s is a bad example due to our rampant blind patriotism and self-promotion. Had it been in modern times, we’d have been well aware of all Hungary’s players. We would have been able to see their recent national team games, many of their individuals’ club games, and have the power to be clued up on the Magnificent Magyars, that one would hope there is no way a modern upset to that scale could happen.
Although, even with all that technology, it’s a crime that most commentators and pundits these days know so little about teams and players of foreign clubs and countries, outside of the obvious few exceptions, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.
As I frequently do, I will highlight the very useful formula of:
Ability = Potential – Interference
Typically used for players, we can also use it when performing a more meta-analysis of an entire nation. Spain are already pretty good. How good could they be if we were able to reduce or remove that interference?
There’s a few things to be aware of. These necessary caveats provide a much needed lens for one to peer through when mulling over Spanish football. As the vast majority of readers of this article will be from the British and Irish Isles, the references I’m about to use to relay some context to the reader will be most likely easier to understand for those with knowledge of the UK and Ireland.
Culturally and politically, one could draw many parallels between Spain and the UK and Ireland. The four home nations of the UK may only be one sovereign country, but for football purposes, act as four independent countries. Similarly, Spain has several autonomous regions that are seeking independence. The reasons for this dip into language, culture, heritage, history, and politics. Catalonia could be like Scotland in a way, with a bulging independence movement, and a separate history, culture, and language to England. Yet in football terms, Scotland and England are separate, where as Catalonia is part of Spain. There’s also the Basque region, another area with an independence movement. These places could legitimately be independent nation states within the next few decades.
Scottish teams do not compete in English leagues, whereas Catalan and Basque teams must compete in the Spanish leagues. Could you see some ways in which Scottish teams competing in England could ramp up the significance of those games and those clubs? To many, there are clubs from these regions in Spain which represent, or are even synonymous with their national identity. “Mes que un club” in Barcelona, where now everything is in Catalan. The red and yellow bars of the Catalan flag are displayed proudly in all directions. In Bilbao, the Basque flag, which looks like a cool evolution of the Union Jack, features prominently. And their “Basque only” selection policy is well known throughout the world. How successful might Athletic Bilbao be if they competed in Euros and World Cups? Surely someone has done the simulations on FIFA or Football Manager. It would be very interesting to see how much that would impact the Spanish national team.
Spain has a lot of empty space, and a few population centres far from the others.
Now if we throw geography into the mix, you’ll see something even more interesting. England has a larger population than Spain. Yet Spain is a bigger country. 80% of Spain is largely uninhabited, whereas England is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. Most Spanish people tend to live in or near the big cities. That’s fairly normal. But these big cities are spread out so far from each other, that these autonomous regions of Spain actually do act kind of like their own little countries.
Look at us in England, with only really Bristol and the North East being isolated from other population centres.
In many parts of England, it’s possible to drive from one big city to another without ever passing through a rural area. The suburbs of one city blend into the suburbs of another. This is not true for everywhere, of course. There is no homogenous English or Spanish experience that we all relate to (other than maybe The Inbetweeners TV series?). It means that, on the whole, far more English people live within these blended suburb type towns than Spanish people, who tend to live in isolated cities, with most of those Spanish residents living very close to the coast.
These factors greatly influence lifestyles. I’d say the national pastime of most Spanish citizens is sitting outside chatting with their mates. The streets are lined with bars and restaurants, where friends and family congregate for hours, just shooting the breeze, without a care in the world. Benches and chairs at the side of the road where people can sit and talk nonsense as the world goes by. Parks and open spaces within every city block being filled with kids, while the parents sit on benches and gossip.
Spanish people tend to own less space. Due to that, they go outside a lot more and use communal areas. The equivalent places back home are usually smashed up and graffitied by teenagers, and are either closed or poorly lit at night. Walking around the streets of Barcelona, there are swing sets and play areas which are used by young children until gone ten at night. We have people who live in small apartments back home, and we have plenty of communal areas such as this, yet I don’t think we have a culture of going outside in the same way the Spanish do. There’s always a football somewhere. Even today, I saw a dad taking shots at his son in the square, using the shop window as a goal.
The weather clearly helps. It’s easy to be outdoors here when it rains only a couple of times a month, and the temperature rarely drops below twenty. But in 2022, I believe there are ways for a country as well-resourced as the UK to be able to provide suitable alternatives. In general, the family unit in Spain is more stable and more traditional than in England. Kids also tend to move out of their parents’ homes considerably later than we do in England (although with covid, the rise of cost-of-living crisis, and the economic outlook for Millennials in general, this is changing).
Some other factors to mention briefly are that the public transport in Spain is better than it is in England. Most of what people need on a weekly basis is within walking distance. It takes me 140 seconds to walk to my gym, 120 seconds to walk to the supermarket, about 100 to walk to the subway station, and several bars and restaurants right on my doorstep. There are several football pitches within a five-minute walk, and somewhere for kids to play, in open, well-lit spaces, both across the road, and behind my apartment block. On Sundays, pretty much everything is closed. Some bars and restaurants will open later in the day, and some smaller grocery stores too. The malls are closed apart from food. The idea being that everyone needs a day off. Rest and relaxation is highly valued.
So. Maintained and easily accessible parks and play areas within densely populated city blocks. Open squares with benches. Bars and restaurants with outside seating. Brilliant public transport. Consistent great weather. Closer families. Everything closed on Sundays. Most of what people need being within walking distance. A culture of going outside. Municipally funded astroturf pitches. Spain is starting to feel quite far away from England.
Looking more at humans in general, I’d say they are considerably less vain here in Spain. People have phones, and they do check them, yet they’re not at the heart of every activity. The people also tend to be less in your face, and apart from a few exceptions, nobody is trying to show off. People aren’t strutting their stuff in the latest fashions, live streaming their every bit of business, trying to tell you or show you how cool and important they are. They’re just going about their lives, minding their own business. They’re not trying to compare or compete. It’s a far less individualistic society when compared to ourselves in England, or the perennial frontrunners in individualism, our good friends the Americans.
The weather in most of Spain is quite warm for most of the year. Not the kind of conditions in which you want to run a lot, or very fast. Pitches are also dry, so the ball doesn’t get stuck in the mud. Many kids still play in the street, or after school they go to the squares and plazas between apartment buildings and shops and kick a ball around with their friends. If the kids live near a beach, they’re out on the sand with their friends playing beach soccer. Most of the schools have flat concrete playgrounds and futsal goals. It’s cliched, I know, but in England, our second and third sports are cricket and rugby. Hit or throw really far, then run like Hell. In Spain, it’s handball and basketball, which involves lots of short, quick passing, and rotations.
The divergence in our cultures, our attitudes, our geography, even our sense of national identity, can explain much of the divergence in our football philosophies and outlooks on the game.
Where is Spain going wrong? Great question. It’s time to get into the mud. Every country I have been to suffers the same problems in the grassroots and youth phases. We laugh, but these are very real problems that penetrate even the birthplace of the beautiful juego de posicion of Guardiola’s scintillating Barcelona. Within the shadows of the Nou Camp, you’ll hear parents and coaches screaming at kids to kick it out when under pressure, and to send it long rather than build it up patiently.
It shocked me. Not only is this the antithesis of the mantra of the very club that represents these people, but both Barcelona and Spain were hugely successful playing this brand of football that, in many ways, revolutionised the game. How is it possible that mums and dads, and coaches, who watched this magnificent football on a weekly basis for the best part of a decade, are encouraging the same kind of football that we have been trying to eradicate in England for years? It makes me wonder about all those times I thought I had “red-pilled” parents in the USA when I got them and their kids to watch high quality European football on a regular basis. Maybe they were watching but it didn’t sink in? Maybe they understand it but cannot generate connections to youth football and their own kids? Maybe for some, winning games with kids trumps all else?
Just last week I witnessed two things I never expected to see. The kind of thing we joke about relentlessly in my circle of coaching friends to help numb the pain. I saw a fat kid, alone, around U11, running laps of the pitch while his teammates played without him. The saddest part about it was that as he was coming towards me, he kept glancing across the pitch at his friends and teammates playing football. Forlorn, longing for this pointless exercise to be over so he can resume his childish ambitions of “fun” and “inclusion,” the boy looked dejected and sad. When later remarking of this incident to another coach, I was, unsurprisingly, informed that this boy was a goalkeeper. Of course he was.
The other thing was in a similar vain. Observing a game, one team of around U11 or U12 had themselves a portly fellow as their goalkeeper. The tired cliches go hard. It was obvious why this boy had been “selected.” The saving grace is that many of the keepers I have seen are excellent with their feet. Able to receive under pressure, directing the play, coming out of their goal to be involved like a sweeper, great touch, able to play short and long. Not this boy. If it weren’t for the sunburn, I could have sworn I was back in England, growing up again in the 90s. This keeper stayed in his own six yard box, couldn’t dive, and was encouraged just to lump the ball down field every time he got it. You know those dropkicks where the ball comes down with snow on it, and no kid wants to head it, but the coaches scream insults at the kids for ducking out the way. That tremendous vicious cycle that we all know too well. The keeper didn’t play short, didn’t link up with others, and never looked to receive a backpass.
One may perceive all Spanish coaches to be on a much higher plane of existence than the rest of us. On the whole, I’d say they have more top-level coaches here, who possess a deep level of football knowledge and understanding. There’s more coaches who are at the top of the bell curve than there are in England, and I’d say the average coach in Spain is more knowledgeable than the average coach in England. But right now, Neanderthals and homo sapiens do exist at the same time. There’s just a few less Neanderthals in Spain than there are in most other countries.
What are the Neanderthals doing here? Their barrage of constant verbal input that they subject their players to can be split into three main categories;
1. Captain Hindsight. They love to state the obvious to a player in the moments after a player made a mistake. Classics being to scream at a player to keep their shot down when they hit it over the bar, or to remind the player what colour the team is wearing when their pass is intercepted by the opposition.
2. Motivational Noises. These are the same all over the world, occupying the same spot in any language. “Let’s go!” and “Come on!” are tried and trusted. Questioning how much the kids really want to win is another common technique. Typically executed during a team talk, but can sometimes be utilised during the match if looking for a more profound effect.
3. Random Emotional Outbursts. Coaches are effective communicators, and are skilled at both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. Verbal would be your grunts, shouts, screams, and wails that provide much of the background noise at any youth sporting event. Those who are adept at non-verbal communication will throw their arms around, point, gesture, and do “the Jesus” when a referee makes a decision they don’t like. The best non-verbal coaches enjoy the occasional hat stamp, bottle kick, and clipboard throw.
Something which sets Spain apart from most countries I’ve been to is how the coaches are on opposite touchlines from each other. Apart from big 11v11 pitches where there might be a dugout, each team bench goes either side of the pitch along the touchline. The parents are kept off the pitch together, and are often behind a barrier or are stat in the stands. Many of the sensible ones seek out shade and observe the game from a distance. I imagine it’s to prevent coach conflicts. We all know that the definition of passion is losing emotional control and coming to blows over a kids’ game of football. Maybe I’m misinterpreting it, and this is not the precaution I believe it to be. Coaches will helpfully enter the field sometimes to bark instructions. It would seem that the extra three yards that have been gained from encroaching the playing area can really make the difference when you need to pass on that golden nugget of information to a child.
Speaking of golden nuggets, several dads and grandads love to play backseat coach. They shout instructions to the kid like they’ve just revealed the secret sauce to their child. In England, these types of dads often wear tracksuits, and sometimes boots to games, and do their own pre-warm up before the warm-up with their kid, before the kid is reluctantly passed into coach’s control. They’ll remind the kid with things like “remember what we talked about” and “play your own game.” The kid looks over at their dad with eyes that convey a message that suggests “you’re a knob” while fearful in the knowledge that they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to wade through the conflicting instructions of Dad and coach. Just before kick-off, that dad will turn to a couple of the other dads and say something along the lines of “Bad result last week. We need a win today.” We. It’s rarely acknowledged by the other parents, who, that dad, just passes off as not invested enough in their own kids’ development.
The Spanish dad equivalent makes suggestions that you would expect to hear from an FA tutor who has been delivering the course since 1962, and never read any of the updated materials. The local county FA kept him on due to some form of tenure. Although he never leads the courses anymore, he’ll still show up, waffles through some story of how his friend forgot his shinpads in some county cup final decades before you were born, and run a twenty minute session on the Cruyff turn. Commands like “Lose your marker,” “Stay alert,” and “Find space” have been grilled into some of these kids that waiting for a corner or free-kick begins to look like a game of stuck in the mud. The melee in the box begins to resemble a swarm of flies, with all these seemingly random, uncoordinated movements, done to appease some external influence, without the ability to understand or conceptualise why it’s being done.
Kids develop through a series of mental stages which indicate how much of an abstract concept they can understand. Unfortunately, many coaches and parents don’t understand this. The kid can’t learn the thing because their brain isn’t ready to learn it yet. We look at the child as they are now in front of us, and compare them to the modern adult game, and then offer suggestions to fill in the gaps, almost like football development is like a bar on a video game. As it slides from left to right, becoming more full, the kid becomes a better player. One very clear example of this was seeing around five pairs of boys in a game dancing and spinning around each other at a free-kick. It was near the halfway line, but we all knew where the ball was going to be hit. The players dutifully arranged themselves on the edge of the penalty area, and then began this uncoordinated dance, accompanied by a chorus of shouts from the parents. This is where the parents were dropping these golden nuggets, having assessed the state of their kid, ran a comparison to adult football, and discovered that the secret to success is to jockey for space when expecting a cross at a restart. Lose your marker, find space, stay open. Attackers and defenders blended, shuffling around each other like lottery balls before a number is picked. This continued for thirty seconds without any of them dropping their intensity. Attackers tried spinning, jumping backwards and forwards, pretending to go one way and then going the other. Defenders were alert, hot on their heels, even with a little shirt tugging, as encouraged by one of the golden nuggets.
Except there was a little problem. The reason why this went on for thirty seconds is because the free-kick taker was tying his shoe. So transfixed by the occasion, focussing on the commands from the sideline, the boys did as they were told. Parents were appeased. None of them actually understood what they were doing, or why they were doing it. If they did, they would have realised there was no need for it yet, as the free-kick was being delayed due to the shoelace. All of the eyes, of both the defenders and attackers, were on each other. None on the ball. Attackers trying to get away from defenders, defenders trying to stay with them. That ball could have been abducted by aliens and none of them would have known, because none of them were looking at it, because they were doing something they had been conditioned to do, without any understanding of what or why they were doing it.
It must be noted that these are the exceptions. Most of the parents here have been fairly chill. There’s still helpful referee advice, like when someone shouts “referee!” without context when something happens in the game they don’t like. In most cases, parents are sat typically a little further from the pitch than in other countries. As a referee of sixteen years, I can assure you that just a little bit of distance makes a huge difference. It sounds silly, but even being only a few extra yards away, it really calms the parents down. As does sitting down. Apart from in the USA, where deckchairs tend to provide the best viewpoint for sideline refereeing and coaching, parents who are sat down tend to be quieter and calmer. Because shade is such a highly valued resource, many tend to congregate in the cooler areas, even if it means a slightly obstructed view. The Spanish lifestyle is a lot more relaxed. The atmosphere at games rarely feels like one that could bubble into something dangerous that would cause harm to a match official in the way you get back home.
In regards to referees, the vast majority of youth games here take place with just one official. Not uncommon, no, but there is a slight difference. These refs don’t even have club assistants. Even for 11v11 games, one individual with a whistle is supposed to call offside by themselves. I know from the handful of times I’ve had to do it, you have no idea. Very rarely can a referee see an offside from their centre of the pitch perspective. These refs are literally guessing. In one game I saw, there were about six offsides given when the attacker was onside by three yards or more, but received the ball clear of the defence. The referee cannot see all things in all directions. By the time they’ve turned their head to follow the flight of the ball, they see an attacker receiving several yards behind the second last defender, and assume that to be that far in advance of they play, the attacker must have started from an offside position. Timing of the run, plus the defender being flat-footed versus the attacker being side-on is not seen.
Not having assistant referees to make offside calls will likely have a detrimental effect on attacking movement. Players will struggle to develop the ability to hug the shoulder of the defender. Or to wait offside, only to sneak back onside at the right moment. You almost have to play like you’re playing one of those biased club linesmen in English grassroots football and make sure you’re always five yards onside. This places a new constraint on the game, and for sure alters the dynamics of football.
Like in a lot of countries, many Spanish youth clubs are absent a curriculum. It’s a bunch of teams in the same kit, and the quality and experience your child receives is random, and depends on the coach. If you get a coach who knows what they’re doing, then lucky you. If not, then you’re stuck. There’s no teaching method or playing style that they fall back on to ensure that even less effective coaches still deliver a minimum standard. In some places, it really can be every man for himself. Which surprised me. I did expect to see more clubs with consistent values and standards permeating and linking each age group. We read so much about the values of FC Barcelona and La Masia, and wrongly assumed it was standard for clubs to adhe