Spain’s hum­ble cham­pion

NOT MESSI, NOR CRIS­TIANO, CRUYFF OR BEST. HOW CAN THAT BE?

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view An­drew Mur­ray Il­lus­tra­tion Alex Wil­liamson

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”

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