Spain’s humble champion
NOT MESSI, NOR CRISTIANO, CRUYFF OR BEST. HOW CAN THAT BE?
Footsoldier Joan Capdevila on winning with the world’s best
He was arguably the lowest-profile member of Spain’s iconic 2010 World Cup-winning side, but Joan Capdevila - thanks in part to a fire in his hotel room - helped La Roja become the best team of all time
I wouldn’t exactly say it was a chore to play for Spain before Euro 2008, but we really didn’t enjoy it much at all. There was a bad atmosphere in the squad, and for a while there was a divide between the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions. You might have very good players, but if you don’t have a good group, you are a long way away from ever winning anything. We weren’t together: the press were against us, and fans whistled us. We lost two of our first three Euro 2008 qualifiers to Sweden and Northern Ireland. Even qualifying looked hard. Our two captains, Iker Casillas and Xavi, brought all the players together. They’d won the Under-20 World Cup in 1999 and were close friends. They knew that something had to change. The whole country was against our coach, Luis Aragones, because he decided to get rid of star players like Raul, Santi Canizares and Michel Salgado, but what that did was start to form a group. Raul’s weight in Spain was massive. We’re talking about if Argentina didn’t take Lionel Messi to the World Cup this summer.
I’m not suggesting that’s why we won the Euros from that desperate position, but it helped. We were a collective. You need your team-mate and your team-mate needs you.
Before every game we would chant the same war cry: ‘Una y dos y tres; ganar, ganar y ganar.’ One, two and three; win, win and win.
And win we did. Playing the way Luis wanted – he had a clear idea about always playing with the ball – we went all the way to the final against Germany, and won. I thought that was as good as my career would ever get. I was wrong.
There’s no motivation needed when it comes to playing at the World Cup. It’s the biggest tournament there is. Real Madrid and Barcelona players were used to winning leagues, European Cups, but those of us who were from ‘inferior’ clubs had an extra desire to prove ourselves.
The expectations in 2010 were now on a different level. Vicente del Bosque had a huge responsibility. If you join a national team that has never won anything, it doesn’t matter if things go badly. Taking over the European champions is very different.
If you’re a national team coach at a major tournament, your job is to pick the team, not train the players. That job has pretty much been done for you already. It’s all about the group and getting them to work together. Every one of the 23 can help each other.
Victor Valdes didn’t play a single minute. I was No.11, he was No.12, so we sat next to each other in the dressing room. He would give me
advice constantly. Every match. Which player was I up against? How could I defend better? He could see more from the substitutes’ bench than I could on the pitch.
Our tournament base was a university residence in Potchefstroom, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It was brilliant, as every player had a little house to himself. Our day-to-day routine was what you would expect: training in the morning and lunch at the same time every day, a little rest, then more time out on the training pitch in the afternoon, plus some video sessions.
In the evenings, we all got together to play cards, computer games or table tennis. Pepe Reina organised the poker games as he was the joker, the party animal who would get everyone together. It was good fun. We never just ate and went to bed.
I’ll never forget the day we went on safari and seeing Gerard Pique feed a newborn tiger with a baby’s bottle. I’d never seen anything like it. Out in the Jeep, we saw giraffes, crocodiles and elephants, but no lions. They must have been hiding. I didn’t know how to react to being so close to wild animals, having only seen them on television before.
We’d talk, share our worries, and ended up spending 24 hours with our team-mates. Without realising it, we united as a group. Then, on the pitch, one look into a team-mate’s eyes and you knew if he was
tired or needed your help. That’s a big advantage.
We started that World Cup with high hopes and expectations, especially knowing our first game, against Switzerland, was winnable. Yet we lost 1-0. We were a bit worried, but also determined. The team had played and fought well and the scoreline wasn’t a reflection of that. ‘It was pure f**king chance they won,’ said Xavi. Things like that happen in football. Del Bosque was criticised – the doble pivote of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso in midfield was far too defensive, according to the press. The following day, we gathered for a team meeting. Vicente, Xavi and Iker Casillas had been up half the night talking things through. The mister told us to carry on playing exactly the same way. ‘Don’t listen to the critics,’ he said. ‘Believe in yourselves.’ The confidence that gave the players was huge. We all knew what we had to do, that one more mistake meant going home early, and that motivated us. There was no margin for error, it was do or die for the rest of the tournament.
The Honduras match wasn’t our best performance, but we did what we needed to and won 2-0. Then it was Chile, a real 50-50 game. The atmosphere in the squad was so tense in the build-up.
From that point onwards, you leave the hotel for every match with your suitcase packed, because you know that defeat means boarding the first available flight back to Spain. It’s heads or tails. Hotel room or departure lounge. Win or fail.
To try to calm the nerves, I continued a tradition I’d started back at Euro 2008. Across Spain, people celebrate the Feast of San Juan on the evening of June 23 by building bonfires. In Catalonia, where I’m from, if you jump over the flames three times, you’ll have good luck for the rest of the year.
In Austria two years earlier, I prepared a bonfire. However, because it rained all day, the wood wouldn’t catch light. There was no doubt in my mind that I must jump over a bonfire – I’d done so all my life. I lit some newspaper on the floor of my hotel room, but I hadn’t realised that the building was made mostly of wood. The whole place nearly went up in flames!
In 2010 things went more smoothly. We had three bonfires outside the hotel and celebrated San Juan as a squad, even if there were only five or six of us brave enough to jump over the flames.
I was certain we’d beat Chile after doing that, even though we had traditionally struggled against South American teams, and specifically those managed by Marcelo Bielsa. His was a different kind of football. Braver, more intense and more destructive. They didn’t give you any peace and fought 100 per cent for every ball. You couldn’t build any rhythm, and that was something we hated.
David Villa and Andres Iniesta put us 2-0 up at half-time, but when Chile scored two minutes after the break, we didn’t know what to do. Do we close down the result? Do we try to attack and score again? The last 10 minutes were very strange. They didn’t attack, and neither did we – it was tense, but in the end we both went though.
When I returned to my hotel room later that night, I slung my case on the bed and said, ‘Thank God I made it back!’
Once we got through to the knockout stages, everything changed for us. It was like there had been a storm that had now passed, and suddenly everything was clear.
We faced our neighbours Portugal in the last 16 and I would be up against Cristiano Ronaldo, who I’d faced many times with Villarreal. When you’ve got a player in front of you with so much quality, you’ve got to hope he has a bad day or that your team-mates can help you out. And start praying!
You know you’re not as good as he is. You know you’re playing one of the very best in the world, and if he has an inspired day, not even the best full-back in the world – let alone Joan Capdevila – is going to be able to stop him.
But all of those thoughts focus you, and give you energy. You know you have to go beyond your normal level – you have to give 200 per cent as 100 per cent isn’t enough. You know that when it comes to speed, he beats you. In the air, he beats you. Shooting, he beats you. His quality can knock you out at any moment.
It was probably my best game of the tournament. We kept Ronaldo pretty quiet and won 1-0. Not conceding was vital, as we dominated possession so well.
The quarter-final against Paraguay was actually our hardest game of the World Cup. They were like Chile: steadfast, strong, hard-working, uncomfortable to play against. Subconsciously, an air of ‘favourites’ had developed in the squad. That damaged us.
“I’LL NEVER FORGET CARLES PUYOL’S HEADER AGAINST GERMANY. HE IS SUPERHUMAN – A BULL, OUR TARZAN”
We conceded a penalty after an hour. Your world comes crashing down. You know that you could be going home, having come so far. That’s when Saint Iker appeared for us, just like he always did in the key moments. His penalty save proved our springboard. Although we had our own penalty saved after Alonso was made to retake it, Villa scored late on and we got another 1-0 win.
From our worst match of the tournament, we then delivered our best in the semi-finals against Germany. Reaching the last four had liberated us. This was Spain’s best ever performance at a World Cup and we thought, ‘We’ve got this far, so now let’s enjoy it. We’ve got the players to win it’.
Germany had learned from their Euro 2008 final defeat, defending deep and waiting to counter-attack as we took the initiative.
I’ll never forget Carles Puyol’s header that night, from Xavi’s corner as they had done so often for Barcelona, which took us to the final. Carles is superhuman. He jumped so high despite being injured. Can you believe that? I’ve never met anyone like him. If you were to cut his leg off, he’d still carry on playing just the same – he wouldn’t be too bothered. I only realised after the match that he was struggling. Puyol was like a bull, our Tarzan. I’ve never seen another player with muscles like his.
Back in Potchefstroom, the players were joking that he had scored the most important goal in Spanish football history. ‘Until Sunday…’ he smiled. Then it hit me. What was I doing playing in a World Cup final?
I went to bed at midnight and was still awake at 3am – I don’t know how anyone could sleep the night before the World Cup final.
What if I cost us a goal? What if I score an own goal? What if I get sent off? My card would forever be marked in Spanish football history. Then you start thinking, ‘Bloody hell, what if I score the winning goal!’ It’s all going through your head.
It’s a day like no other. You suddenly have all this adrenaline rushing through your body for a game you’ve daydreamed about every day since you were a kid.
You try to stick to the same routine. I’m very superstitious, so I ate the same food as always and had my coffee at the same time.
We had a big pre-match meeting with Del Bosque at the hotel, but I barely took in what he was saying. When you’re about to play in the World Cup final, you have a million things going through your mind.
I think he told us something about us not being in the army, that we were only playing a football match and not fighting in a war, but I can’t really remember.
It was 20 minutes from our hotel to the ground, maybe half an hour. Before a normal match, everyone’s talking, laughing and listening to music. That day, no one said anything. Total silence. You could have heard a pin drop. It was fear.
When you approach the ground for an evening game, you can see the glow of the floodlights even from a couple of miles away. I could barely breathe. The tension was unbearable.
Everything changes when you step on the pitch to warm up. You’re in the world you understand – on the pitch, playing with the ball. It’s a far more familiar feeling.
Those five minutes before the game starts last forever. When I first walked out of the tunnel and past that trophy, I fell in love. But you can’t touch it. So I said, ‘Hopefully I’ll see you later.’
I saw my career flash before my eyes during the national anthem. You suddenly realise the privilege you’re experiencing by playing in the world’s most important game. You’ve got the eyes of 50 million people on you – and that’s just in Spain.
I was up against Arjen Robben and prepared like I had for Ronaldo. I knew the most important thing I could do was defend, not attack. We had enough players who could do that.
Whether it’s early or late in the game, I knew we could score. We had the players. I was certain that if the defenders did their bit and kept a clean sheet, we’d be the world champions. After all, we’d won every knockout game 1-0.
In the 14th minute, Robin van Persie did a fair bit of damage to my ankle, which doubled over. I spent the whole 15 minutes of half-time with the physios and didn’t hear a word of Del Bosque’s team talk. My ankle had swelled up to almost the size of the ball.
I told the physios: ‘Wrap this ankle up, as I need to go back out and play the second half. If it doesn’t work, by the second minute I’ll ask to be substituted.’
I could barely get my boot on because my ankle was so inflamed. I went back out onto the field and, call it destiny or divine intervention, but it didn’t hurt. My brain didn’t let it hurt. I’m convinced that had it been any normal game, I couldn’t have carried on. But I was able to play the whole game, including extra time, and my ankle only started hurting the following day.
It wasn’t only Van Persie. The Dutch’s violent anti-futbol, epitomised by Nigel de Jong’s ‘tackle’ on Xabi Alonso, really surprised me. I didn’t realise exactly what had happened to Xabi until I saw it on television later. It was brutal. The whole world could see that it was a red card, apart from the referee. But the incident only inspired us to battle even harder for each other.
In the second half we needed our Saint Iker once again, with a little bit of help from me. A Wesley Sneijder through-ball got past Gerard Pique, Robben made a great diagonal run and was suddenly through one-on-one with Casillas.
I couldn’t do anything except run behind Robben and try to put him off. When I saw Casillas come out, I shouted: ‘Quiricocho!’ at Robben. Just to see if he’d miss.
It was a word that Manuel Pellegrini’s assistant at Villarreal, Ruben Cousillas, had told me to shout when trying to distract an opponent. It doesn’t really mean anything, it just sounds funny. But it saved us from losing the World Cup.
With four minutes to go in extra time, Andres won it for us. I was so happy for him because he’d had a tough year. He’d been injured for much of the season, picked up another knock in our opening match against Switzerland, and all the while had had to deal with the death of his great friend Dani Jarque the previous summer.
Cesc Fabregas passed the ball to Iniesta, and instead of shooting straight away and smashing it way over – which is what I would have have done – he let the bouncing ball drop to the perfect height so he could blast it past the goalkeeper.
I looked over at the linesman because the whole stadium fell silent and I thought, ‘Is it a goal? It can’t be’.
I saw Andres running towards the corner flag and celebrating. From where I was on the pitch to the corner flag was about 90 yards away. Even with my ruined ankle, I ran over there faster than Usain Bolt! In 16 years as a professional, that was the most I’ve ever run in one go on a football pitch. And the quickest, too.
I’ve honestly never watched the goal again – I’m petrified that next time Iniesta will miss!
Those last four minutes were the longest of my career – you look up at the scoreboard and the minutes aren’t ticking away. Every second seems to last forever.
There was no control, it was like the ball was on fire. Nobody kept it for more than a couple of seconds. It’s 1-0. Imagine you’re that close to being a world champion.
The Dutch hit the ball out of play for a goal-kick and Casillas went to get it. I shouted at Iker: ‘On your mother’s life, don’t fetch it. Let them give you a yellow card if you have to.’
That’s when the referee blew his whistle. I fell to the floor. We were hugging each other, but I wasn’t really aware of what was happening.
The first thing I did was give the trophy a kiss. That’s my best World Cup memory. If it was love at first sight when I came out of the tunnel, then that moment was the wedding.
I went to find my parents. Seeing them cry tears of joy had a huge impact on me. They’re both scared of flying, so the 12-hour flight to South Africa and back was so hard for them.
From the stadium, we went straight to the airport and then direct to Madrid, before celebrating like locos.
I had never seen so many people in one place – it was unbeatable. I don’t know how many million people came out to party that day in Madrid, but it was spectacular. From what I remember, anyway – I’d had a fair bit to drink!
I barely slept for two days and went back to my home town, Tarrega, in Catalonia, for what I hoped would be a few quiet days. The whole town wanted to congratulate me!
We drove around the streets in an open-top car and then went out on the balcony of the town hall. Everyone from the local shops came onto the street to see what was happening.
You don’t really appreciate exactly what you’ve achieved until you see things like this.
Football is unfair. I, a guy who can barely do a stepover, am a world champion. Yet none of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Johan Cruyff, George Best or Alfredo Di Stefano could say the same. How can that be? I guarantee you that Messi would swap any of his Golden Boots or Ballons d’or for one World Cup.
I’m not the sort of player who would ever be a 10 out of 10, but nor have I ever been a four out of 10 either. Every team needs a left-back and I would rather it be me than anyone else. I loved playing football and I guess you could say I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I played for the greatest team in history. Just look at the trophies: Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. No one was able to beat us for four years. No other team comes close to that. Not even Barcelona or Real Madrid.
“THE LAST FOUR MINUTES OF THE FINAL WERE THE LONGEST OF MY CAREER – IT WAS LIKE THE BALL WAS On FIRE”
Above Carles Puyol’s crashing header led La Roja into the 2010 World Cup Final Left Capdevila during the opening group game defeat to SwitzerlandBelow Vicente del Bosque shut out all the critics of his style
Top Saint Iker comes to the rescue again Middle Sergio Ramos kept Kuyt & Co. quiet to send Spain potty Bottom Iniesta leads the celebrations after his extra-time winner Right Capdevila kisses the trophy: “My best World Cup memory”