I’m heading back to sunny Spain this week after my summer holidays in mostly cold and wet Northern Ireland (shouldn’t that be the other way round?) and while work starts again on Friday, my Spanish football season starts on Saturday as I travel up to Madrid for arguably the biggest match anywhere in Europe this week.
Spain and Italy are currently neck and neck in the race to make it to next year’s World Cup in Russia and the outcome of Saturday night’s match at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu will be crucial in deciding who gets there automatically and who has to face a play-off.
After successfully negotiating the glitchy nightmare that is the RFEF ticketing website to acquire tickets, I’m very excited about the game. Like most 90’s kids, I grew up watching Channel 4’s Football Italia coverage, while I’ve obviously spent the last few years living in Spain, immersed in the culture of La Liga. I’ve seen both countries play before, Spain twice (Northern Ireland’s historic 3-2 victory in Belfast in 2006 and a 2-0 win over Slovakia in Oviedo two years ago) and Italy once (a 0-0 draw with NI in Belfast in 2010) but I’m excited to finally see two of my favourite footballing nations up against each other and here are five reasons why.
1. David Villa’s back in town!
— Selección Española (@SeFutbol) August 28, 2017
A very pleasing surprise when Spain’s squad was announced last weekend was the return of David Villa, Spain’s record goalscorer, to the international fold for the first time since the 2014 World Cup. Villa might be 35 now and have been playing in MLS, but he still maintains the predatory instinct that made him one of the top strikers in the world. And given the relative lack of options to lead the line, thanks to Diego Costa’s extended summer holiday in Brazil and Paco Alcacer’s general uselessness since joining Barcelona, there’s a certain wisdom in bringing someone of Villa’s proven quality back to the fold.
I’ve been a fan since his days at Valencia but get the impression that he’s not appreciated as much as he should be. Maybe this comes from his time at Barcelona being overshadowed by Messi’s most prolific period and the knee injury which robbed him of half a season in the prime of his career. Even for Spain, there’s an element of him being overshadowed by others. At Euro 2008, he won the Golden Boot, but was injured in the semi-final and missed the final as Fernando Torres grabbed the headlines by scoring the goal which won the trophy. Then at the World Cup in South Africa, his goals almost single-handedly dragged Spain through the early rounds, but Andres Iniesta scored the goal which made Spain World Champions. Then he wasn’t even present in Poland and Ukraine, the aforementioned knee injury keeping him out of the squad.
Although Alvaro Morata, who has started the season in good form for Chelsea, is almost certain to start, it would be great to see Villa involved at some stage.
2. Buffon vs Spain’s new wave
Earlier on I mentioned how Channel 4’s Football Italia coverage was a huge part of my childhood. James Richardson sitting in a café with a big ice cream, reading the iconic pink pages of the Gazzetta dello Sport, making puns about the top players of the day including Baggio, Maldini, Batistuta and a young goalkeeper called Gianluigi Buffon. 20 years later, Buffon is still going strong, although he has said he plans to retire after the World Cup next year.
Standing in his way of getting there is a Spain team full of new, young attacking talent, including his former Juventus teammate Morata, Atletico Madrid’s Saul and most excitingly of all, Marco Asensio, who scored against Buffon in last season’s Champions League Final and has started the season on fire for Real Madrid and must surely be in line to start his first competitive international in his home stadium. Buffon is going to need to be at his best to keep them at bay.
I’m glad I’ll finally get a chance to see probably the greatest goalkeeper of the modern era play. The only other time I’ve seen an Italy international was their 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland in Belfast in 2010, when Buffon was absent, still recovering from the injury which limited his participation at the World Cup in South Africa.
3. The best national anthem in the world
No further explanation necessary.
4. It’s at the Bernabeu
Although it is the stadium which has hosted the most Spanish internationals, these days Spain don’t play at the Bernabeu as often as you might think. In fact it has been six and a half years since they last played a match there, and even longer (eight and a half years) since their last qualifier there. That tells you something about how big this game is. Traditionally Spain move their fixtures around the country (the most recent campaign has seen games played in Leon, Gijon and Granada) but for the really important fixtures, they return to the capital.
Tickets for the match sold out within a few hours of going on general sale in July and the sight of a full Bernabeu will surely be something to behold. I’ve only ever been to one game there before, and it was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had at a football match, so I’m excited to see the stadium from a different perspective. It’s one of the great arenas of world football, somewhere anyone who loves the sport should make a special effort to go and see a match in and hopefully Saturday night provides it with an occasion fitting of that status.
There’s also the small question of how the home crowd will treat Gerard Pique. As tickets were available to Real Madrid socios before going on general sale, it’s highly likely that they will dominate the crowd and he could be in for a rough ride. The last Spain game I attended, two years ago in Oviedo, saw him whistled repeatedly through the game and last year he had to deny reports that he cut the sleeves off his shirt because they had the colours of the Spain flag. Such is the polarising effect of the never-ending Madrid/Barcelona rivalry which dominates discourse in Spanish football.
I’m expecting some creative references to his now infamous “Se queda” tweet on Saturday evening.
Italians will also have a special place in their hearts for this famous old ground as it was there in 1982 that they won their third World Cup, with a 3-1 win over West Germany (featuring that Marco Tardelli celebration).
5. When Spain and Italy meet, it’s big.
There’s a real rivalry between these two teams, with Italy traditionally playing the role of Spain’s bete noir, their ultra-defensive catenaccio seen as the antithesis of Spain’s free-flowing tiki-taka. It’s also true that Spain were traditionally the masters of coming into a tournament with high expectations, only to end up embarrassing themselves, while Italy would be written off by everyone pre-tournament and end up reaching the final almost despite themselves.
The seeds of the modern-day rivalry were laid in the quarter final of the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Italy eventually triumphed 2-1, thanks to the genius of Roberto Baggio, but Spanish ire was focused on the injury time incident where Mauro Tassotti introduced his elbow to Luis Enrique’s nose and the penalty that was never awarded.
When the two sides next met in a tournament, it was in the quarter finals of Euro 2008. Spain’s victory on that occasion was a landmark for three reasons. First, they finally got past a quarter final after falling at that stage on three previous occasions. Second, they won it on penalties, having lost their previous two shootouts and suffered the indignity of becoming the only side to ever lose one to England. And finally, they defeated Italy in a major tournament for the first time ever. Many of the players said that it was this game that convinced them they really could go on and win the tournament.
If that game was he beginning of the Spanish golden age, their meetings with Italy four years later saw them at their zenith. After a 1-1 draw in their opening game of the tournament both sides progressed through to the final, where Spain produced a performance for the ages, their 4-0 victory securing a third successive major trophy and surely cementing their position as one of the greatest sides in the history of international football.
But by the next big meeting that magic had started to fade following the disastrous 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Spain still went into Euro 2016 as one of the favourites, whereas Italy were written off by everyone, described by some as the worst Italian team to ever go to a tournament. So it was probably fitting that they turned Spain over in the last 16, bringing the golden age, and with it the reign of Vicente del Bosque, to an end.
Here’s hoping for more drama worthy of these past encounters on Saturday evening!