Vicente del Bosque: Spain’s quiet Conquistador

Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque looks out of place in an era of suave coaches prowling the touchline in designer suits

 Vicente del Bosque  celebrates as he lifts the World Cup with his team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11th, 2010. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Vicente del Bosque celebrates as he lifts the World Cup with his team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11th, 2010. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

 

Vicente del Bosque is inscrutable. It’s difficult to know what goes on behind that flowerbox moustache he sports. He never betrays emotion during a game. His team speeches, say his players, rarely last much more than a minute.

Del Bosque admits that a lot of his personality is a product of Castile, the plateau region in central Spain he hails from. It typically produces august, serene men “without great eccentricities”, he claims, although the chief clue to Del Bosque’s character – he is revered in Spain for being a señor, a gentleman – stems from his father’s righteousness.

Del Bosque was born in Salamanca, the old university town, in 1950. He was 11 or 12 years of age when he discovered that his father, Fermín, was stashing propaganda leaflets in the house. This was during Franco’s years of terror. He still held firm to his radical, left-wing political beliefs despite his war experiences.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, a neighbour denounced him as a communist. He was captured by Franco’s forces in the Basque Country, and thrown into prison in the Basque town, Álava, for three years. He had a rough time of it, according to Del Bosque, who spoke out, as recently as 2011, in favour of people who are looking to find out what happened to ancestors who “disappeared” during the Spanish Civil War.

Del Bosque received his political schooling in his parents’ kitchen. They often spoke in whispers about certain subjects. His father used to listen to La Pirenaica, the Soviet Union-funded pirate radio station. He attended his son’s football matches, but never passed any judgement. He must have been conflicted when Del Bosque left to join Real Madrid, a bastion of Spain’s ruling right-wing class, in 1968.

Del Bosque was a tall, rake-thin central midfielder. His team-mates used to call him “palillo” (toothpick). He played his last competitive game for the club in the Copa del Rey, Spain’s cup competition, in 1983, and turned out 18 times for Spain.

He picked up five league winners’ medals for Real Madrid, although, on the biggest night of his football career, he was on the losing side in the 1981 European Cup final against Liverpool, having marked Ray Kennedy.

The abiding image of him from those European Cup nights is of a man strolling around the middle of the field with the ball at his feet. He was an organiser much in the mould of Sergio Busquets, who is the modern player, says Del Bosque, he would most like to be reincarnated as.

After hanging up his boots, Del Bosque joined Real Madrid’s cantera, its youth academy, as a coach and later as trainer of the club’s B team. He lived in an apartment so close to the club’s former training ground he could clock which players arrived early to training. Raúl, Real Madrid’s iconic striker, and Iker Casillas, Spain’s current goalkeeper and captain, were among the players he nurtured.

Twice, during the mid-1990s, he acted as caretaker coach for Real Madrid’s first team. He lasted two months at the helm during the first stint in 1994, when, interestingly, he brought Rafa Benitez, his young assistant, along for the ride.

When John Toshack was sacked in November 1999, and Del Bosque was summoned for a third time, it was assumed his stay would again be short. The press took to calling him Vicente the Brief, although he remained in the post for four years. With the exception of Miguel Muñoz, who gave him his club debut as a player, Del Bosque is the longest-serving manager at the club since the Second World War.

The trophies piled up during his reign – seven in total, including two league trophies and the Champions League wins in 2000 and 2002. He was fired a day after Real Madrid won the league title in 2003. The first intimation of his fate came when a journalist told him while he was waiting to go on air for a television interview.

He was dispensed with because he was an unfussy, old-school coach who didn’t fit with Real Madrid’s marketing-driven business plan. Florentino Pérez, who is still Real Madrid’s president today, fawned over the image rights of his star assets like a Hollywood studio boss. The club had just signed David Beckham and was selling replica jerseys with frenzied zeal. Del Bosque, a loyal, humble soldier from another era, was passé.

“Del Bosque’s profile is a traditional one,” Perez told a news conference. “We’re looking for someone with more emphasis on tactics, strategy and physical preparation. We believe that the squad we are building would be more powerful with a coach with a different character. Del Bosque was showing signs of exhaustion. I want to be sincere about this – our belief that he was not the right coach for the future.”

Del Bosque avows that he will never return to work for Real Madrid. The reasoning proffered at his exit interview incensed him. “The fact,” he said, “that some smart-arse dressed in a pair of braces comes up to me and tells me I’ve got to get ‘modern’ really pisses me off.”

Del Bosque was swapped for a man with multi-linguistic skills and a good tan – Carlos Queiroz, Alex Ferguson’s former number two at Manchester United, who failed to deliver Pérez a trophy, as was the case with five subsequent chosen successors until Pérez decided to try his luck with José Mourinho.

Del Bosque was brought back into the fold in March 2011 when he was awarded honorary membership – along with Rafael Nadal and Plácido Domingo – but for several years he had felt awkward going along to matches at the Bernabéu Stadium with his family, given the circumstances of his departure from the club. His left-leaning politics had complicated membership of the tribe, too.

“Del Bosque is loved because he represents values of moderation, prudence and cohesion,” says Santiago Segurola, Spain’s foremost football writer. “He is a very interesting figure because he is a madridista to death. He served the club for over 30 years. He coached the team, won leagues and Champions Leagues, the World Cup, the Euros, but he’s accepted more by the rest of the world than he is by the core of Real Madrid. When Florentino Pérez awarded him the honorary medal, the normal thing would have been to present it to him in the middle of the pitch at the Bernabéu and people would have risen to applaud a madridista, but this didn’t happen.”

According to the Real Madrid player Sergio Ramos, who anchors his central defence on the Spain team, Del Bosque is “psychologically refined”. His collegiate management style served him well in a dressing room full of galáctico egos at Real Madrid, which included Zinedine Zidane, Luís Figo and the Brazilian Ronaldo. Players say that he never raises his voice or singles out a player for criticism.

He has been good at diffusing tension in the national team’s camp, especially during the fractious years of Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid when a bitter schism developed between Barça and Real Madrid’s players. After the infamous clásico match in August 2011, in which Mourinho poked the late Tito Vilanova in the eye, Del Bosque spoke to Casillas and Xavi Hernández, the two clubs’ most senior players, to ensure the enmity didn’t pollute the national team.

He has steel, too. He was angry at the toing and froing that surrounded David Silva’s move to Manchester City during the 2010 World Cup, a disruption that cost the little playmaker his place in the side. He has also brought defensive solidity to the side he inherited from Luis Aragonés in 2008, putting Busquets alongside Xabi Alonso as two screens for the team’s defence. The results have been remarkable. The team has only conceded three goals in 13 matches during the Euro 2012 finals and the World Cup two years earlier.

Can he galvanise an aging team, which includes five players with over 100 caps, for one more tilt at history? It seems improbable. He is without an identifiable striker. Casillas, who looked like an overeager butterfly catcher in the Champions League final, is rusty, having been benched for Real Madrid’s league campaign last season. They have a sticky group, which includes Chile and the Netherlands. Del Bosque will, however, ensure Spain are difficult to beat, and that they have a happy camp.

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