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Predictions for 2008 — Spanish grapes picks of the British bunch

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Tradition dictates that as the clock counts down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, Spaniards all over the Peninsula stuff twelve of those sumptuous Spanish grapes their mouths, in tune with the twelve strikes of the bells signalling the birth of the new annum. Quite often this has comic consequences; for instance, two years ago, a national newscaster almost choked live on air as she attempted to masticate a bunch of grapes simultaneously. The moral of this story? A tenuous one, I’ll give you that: maximise your potential, find the right mixture of elements, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Spanish players and managers have proved wonderfully adept at maximising their potential over the last couple of years, and Spanish football (if not the Selección, which is itself improving) — perhaps it would be more accurate to say Spanish footballers and football managers currently find(s) itself/themselves near the top of the world football market. Notwithstanding the lack of Spanish teams in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League last year — a one-off phenomenon that I would expect to be corrected this time round — Spanish football is in an immensely healthy state, and this success is at least to some extent linked to English influences.

On a national level, Spain, considered by many as perennial underachievers, are by no means in dire straits. The showing at the 2006 World Cup was exciting in bursts, with Villa and Torres superb up front, whilst the ghosts of a poor start to the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign have been categorically cast away by Luis Aragones’ side over the last six months, especially thanks to the rise to prominence of Espanyol and their players, as well as to the decision to combine the skills of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas across the centre of the park (although Mikel Arteta would still pip Xavi in my estimations). Whilst I would not place my house on Spain taking home the 2008 trophy, they are undoubtedly in with a chance, if anything because the national side at last seems to be playing with an scrap of united spirit.

At youth level, Spain continue to flourish; La Furia have won five of the last seven European Under-19 Football Championships, although they have not fared so well at Under-20 or Under-21 level in recent years (the mid-to-late nineties remained successful periods). Players such as Ramos, Fabregas, Silva, and Iniesta have graduated into the senior squad (although I would concede that many have failed to do so, a fact I will touch on by and by), whilst Bojan leads the list of current young incumbents who can expect to leave the kiddies and march on with the “grown-ups”.

FabregasHowever, as I have suggested in my title, it is the mutual influence of Spanish and English football which I most wish to elucidate and praise in this article. Any Londoner with his eyes open can attest to the growing presence of Spaniards in the nation’s capital, and the field of football has been as affected as any other by this trend. Some ten years ago, the contribution of Spaniards to the top British leagues was negligible, and coverage of the Premiership in Spain akin to Sky Sports’ La Liga programs (including the excellent Revista de La Liga) was nigh-on non-existent. Nowadays, several major Spanish channels broadcast Premiership (and even some cup) matches, matches are available to watch online, and there has been a perceptible growth in public awareness of and interest in British football.

Spaniards are everywhere to be found on the English scene, and this tendency is expanding exponentially. Top youngsters are being poached left, right and centre — Liverpool’s Bruna and Arsenal’s Mérida are recent examples — and are excelling in their foreign climes. Players such as Fabregas and Piqué have benefited from the opportunity to combine their technical formation with the rigours of dynamic, robust, “English” football, a combination which has proved key to their development as players.

Spanish youth players are demonstrating, as a counterpoint to their English coevals, that they are not afraid to take risks in order to get a look-in at first-team level. A lot has been made of the shortage of English youngsters breaking through into top Premiership teams. Let us look at the examples of Real Madrid and Barcelona, however. Miguel Torres constitutes the most recent example of a Spanish player successfully occupying a berth at Real Madrid; players such as Guti and Raúl continue as vestiges of a past generation, whilst the new generation of stars has no room for such cantera flops as Raúl Bravo and Pavón. Promising youngsters like Granero, Mata, Soldado and Bueno have either departed the Madrid club or languished on the verge of the first-team without really being allowed to make their mark. Meanwhile, Barça, despite being “més que un club”, have very few Catalan titulares; Oleguer regularly sits on the bench, leaving Iniesta, Xavi and Puyol (who I suspect is currently in the team more for his decidedly Catalan presence than for his form) as the only Catalan symbols in the side (Bojan constitutes a grey area, whilst the situation at Espanyol is a fair bit more encouraging).

AnfieldWhilst this double-edged tendency — players departing Spain or finding themselves out-of-the-picture at their clubs — does not necessarily reflect well on the youth policies of the big Spanish teams, it certainly promises to bear fruit for the Selección, which will undoubtedly benefit from the travel experience garnered by their stars. Very few England regulars have any experience of playing their trade abroad, in different footballing and cultural conditions, whilst such icons as Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas all boast formative foreign experience on their résumé. Even Mikel Arteta, whose battling nature and excellent tackling afford him the perfect weapons for the style exhibited in the EPL, can, like Reno Gattuso, point to his experience as a youngster at Glasgow Rangers, as having helped him ameliorate his combative abilities and complement his technical powers. Another Spaniard, Nacho Novo, has performed admirably north of the border for more than four years. Meanwhile, the success of Spaniards in the EPL, as well as the general well-being of the national squad, is exhibited with crystal clarity by the fact that Manuel Almunia, the fourth-choice Spanish goalkeeper, is being touted as the solution to England’s goalkeeping crisis.

In the managerial stakes, Spanish managers have now begun to make their presence felt here in England. Rafa Benítez was already a firm favourite on the Premiership scene, having delivered four trophies in his three-year reign, whilst new addition Juande Ramos has started off his tenure at Tottenham Hotspur in excellent fashion, with most Spurs fans agreeing that Ramos has demonstrated in a short period of time more tactical ability and a greater knack for substitutions than jolly Jol had done in his three years at the club.

As a last example, I wish to turn my attention to a charismatic manager who, apparently unnoticed by the media, has been responsible for notable success in the English lower leagues: Roberto Martínez. Martínez, known to many fans for his role as a pundit for Sky Sports, has, at the age of 34, guided unfancied Swansea City to the summit of League 1, in what is just his first full season in charge of the Welsh club. What’s more, he has accomplished such a feat with little or no outlay on players (Matty Collins, Warren Feeney and David Knight all arrived for no fee), a fact which is remarkable compared to the fees paid out by teams such as Forest and Carlisle. Swansea have scored 41 goals and conceded just 20 (a defensive record second only to Notts Forest), and recently accounted for Leeds United at home. Most impressive has been the spirit demonstrated by the squad, coming back from losing situations in numerous occasions.

Finally, our coverage of La Liga and all things related here at Soccerlens is also fighting fit. Making up for this author’s slapdash attempts, you readers are lucky enough to have the regular updates of Subhankar Mondal and Nic in what promises to be an excellent year. Come back soon for my title predictions. Feliç any nou! (happy new year).

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Hugo Steckelmacher has loved football since he can remember - indeed, his mother often jokes that he kicked so much as a baby due to his eagerness to get out of the womb and play football! Of German-Jewish descent, a rocky love-affair with Tottenham began at a young age, and his favourite players as a child were Nick Barmby and Gary Mabbutt. At the age of ten, he began to watch La Liga football and fell in love with the league and especially with the "juego bonito" of the two biggest clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now living in Barcelona, Hugo regularly [sic] writes on La Liga and Tottenham.