Spain’s team of World and European champions arrived back in scorching Madrid on Monday afternoon. It’s July.
The season started for all the players last July. There wasn’t a single month when they didn’t play football.
Juan Mata has played at least one ‘extra’ competitive football match, sometimes several, every month since July 2011. Euro 2012, the Olympics, the Confederations Cup have all eaten into his last two summers.
That’s on top of his club football where Chelsea have played more games than ever before in their history. His pre-season amounted to 11 days last year before he played in the Community Shield.
Many Spain players have played similar numbers of games and it’s not only for the top-level players. Spain’s domestic season play-offs only finished on Sunday.
A post-season break used to be two months. Barcelona’s Spain stars will have just over two weeks.
Most will go to Ibiza on holiday with their families before joining up with their club at various stages of a pre-season which takes in 30,000 kilometres and seven games in seven different countries.
The global sponsors who’ve provided the biggest financial growth area for the world’s leading clubs want their pound of flesh, the companies who’ve paid huge match fees want to see stars not B team players.
Then they have to do it all again in a competitive season. But can they do it again?
Will Barcelona be brilliant or is their cycle finished? Are exhausted Spain on the slide after being outclassed by Luiz Scolari’s very promising Brazil in the Maracana?
Be careful before you write either off.
No team can win every trophy, though Barça and Spain have come close in recent seasons. The Confederations Cup is not the World Cup or the European Championship. When Spain have needed to come good they’ve done that.
Their players may be knackered, but they’ve got so many to choose from that they could field a second XI which would be a top five international side in the world.
And there’s staggering strength coming through: Spain’s Under 21s held onto their European crown last month in impressive fashion.
The talent is there. How they’re managed is an issue.
Does Xavi, 33, have another great World Cup in him after another 60-game season? He’s been peerless, but his level has dropped and the sides which he’s orchestrated haven’t controlled games, haven’t fan-encircled opponents on the edge of their area as they did – the hallmark of La Roja and Barça in recent seasons.
Xavi needs to be used more sparingly, for his cliché free quotes about not getting the right level of intensity for club and country are becoming too frequent.
He’s shattering Barca’s own aura of invincibility in his honest words, though Bayern Munich paid little attention to words as they beat them 7-0. A 7-0 banner has become a favourite for rival Espanyol fans.
The Spanish media was split following the defeat in Brazil. “We’ll be back,” was the headline in Marca over a photo of Neymar wheeling away from a floored Iker Casillas after scoring. Barça fans hope for more of that next season, that Neymar will torture Madrid’s Alvaro Arbeloa again too.
The theme of vengeance is not universal.
“Defeat creates doubts,” wrote AS editor Alfredo Relaño. “Doubts over names, doubts over the style...reasonable doubts.”
The coaches need to manage their assets well. Thiago Alcantara is a natural successor for Xavi at club and country. You can understand why Barcelona are trying to persuade him to stay and for him to be patient, but he’s heard it all before and is likely to leave for Manchester or Munich.
If he stays, the obvious, simple, short-term option would be for Xavi to play 10 less games a season and Thiago 10 more.
Barça need to bring in players and that’s what they’re doing. Is there a more exciting player in the world than Neymar at present? Neymar will play alongside Messi next season.
Barça also need a central defender and they’re confident that Neymar’s compatriot Thiago Silva will come, even if he costs €40 million. They want the future of both Thiagos sorted out by July 15th, but the Silva is likely to take longer than Alcantara.
Not longer than a Spanish season you’ll understand. That now takes a year.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us on all matters in La Liga throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.