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Disarray not always a bad thing
Spain will need to overcome, or ignore, organizational chaos surrounding the team

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Saturday, June 16, 2018 – Page S3

On the eve of the knockout rounds at the 1974 World Cup, Helmut Schon, the manager of West Germany, blew a mental fuse.

The Germans had been in disarray for most of the tournament, turned inside out by a dispute over bonus money. Schon had already threatened to send the lot of them home and play a team of substitutes instead.

Then they lost to East Germany. The game didn't mean much in terms of the standings, but Schon was devastated. The next morning, he refused to come out of his room. He skipped an afternoon press conference. Players later described his malady as a sort of nervous breakdown.

Team captain Franz Beckenbauer became the de facto manager, coaxing Schon out into public and assuming most media duties. Schon was a passenger the rest of the way. West Germany still won.

All that to say that organizational chaos is a regular occurrence at the World Cup and not always a bad thing.

Some teams embrace it (Italy winning at Germany 2006 while several players were caught up in a nationwide match-fixing scandal). Some burst into flames (France going all aux barricades against each other in 2010 and being sent home in the most awful possible manner - forced to fly coach).

The early favourite for basket case of this tournament is Spain.

Hours before the opener, they fired their manager, Julen Lopetegui, because he'd agreed to take the top job at Real Madrid without bothering to tell anyone.

The head of the Spanish federation found himself in an ugly tussle with Real's gleefully unhinged president, Florentino Perez.

"Some people will do anything to hurt the image of Real Madrid," Perez said at Lopetegui's rushed unveiling back home. You were beginning to understand why Spain had a civil war.

Former international Fernando Hierro was air-dropped onto the Spanish bench, largely because people recognize him and he looks good in a tight, white shirt. Hierro's rally-the-troops message boiled down to "Managers don't do much anyway." Assuming he would like to hold the job for a while, it's an odd interview technique.

Spanish national teams were once famous for this sort of nonsense, habitually undone by bickering along tribal lines. The Real players hated the Barcelona players. The Catalans hated the Castilians who hated the Andalucians and so forth. The usual result was a group of marvellous individual talents who refused to pass the ball to one another.

After decades of underperformance, the Spaniards finally buried their grudges and began winning major trophies. The iteration between 2008-12 may be the greatest national side ever.

The Spain squad that has shown up in Russia is the hind parts of that generation - in roster flux and still great, but no longer a sure thing.

On Friday, they faced an ersatz version of themselves in Portugal. This was meant to be the Big Event of the group stage in Russia - usually a sure sign that it will be an unwatchable slog. That was the first surprise.

The major decision facing Hierro going into the game was choosing the replacement for injured fullback Dani Carvajal.

From three options, he chose Nacho (the man, not the chip, and Real's Nacho as opposed to Arsenal's Nacho). The thinking seemed to be that as one of his club teammates, Nacho was best suited to mark Cristiano Ronaldo.

Two minutes into the game, Nacho was taken by surprise when Ronaldo tried to go by him with a step over. That would make him one of the three or four people on the planet who did not see that one coming.

Nacho left a leg dangling. Ronaldo tripped over it. Penalty. After Ronaldo scored, he stroked imaginary chin whiskers - a cheeky reference to GOAT (greatest of all time) and a symbolic shot across the bow of his nemesis, Lionel Messi.

Just before the half, Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea - considered by many the best in the world at his position - palmed a Ronaldo shot into his own net.

The winds of change, they were blowing.

And in the very late going, Ronaldo chipped in a ludicrous free kick curveball that, on replay, seemed to cast the whole idea of physics into doubt.

So, to recap, Ronaldo had a hat trick, including a golazo, off two egregious Spanish errors. His ego must now be close to attaining its own gravity.

And yet the game still ended 3-3.

Spain's Diego Costa, the world's strongest baby, had two goals. Nacho made up for his mistake with a lovely long-distance tally picked out of the air.

It is generally the case that the tone of a World Cup is set in the very early going. If the first few teams out of the chute play with aspiration, others feel compelled to match them.

On that basis, this tournament is shaping up as a treasure. All three games played on Friday were won dramatically in the final minutes. Even Morocco-Iran - on paper, the equivalent of two guys Jell-O wrestling - captured the imagination.

But Spain-Portugal operated on a level so different that it would be wrong to say they were in the same building.

It would not be a disappointment if this turned out to be the most entertaining encounter of the whole shebang. It was a game so good, Iberian hill people will be writing songs about it.

A draw puts both teams in good position, but it felt like a win for Portugal. Outside Ronaldo, they weren't great. But Ronaldo is all they need.

The main thing missing from his GOAT résumé is a memorable run through a World Cup. On Friday, in his fourth try, he finally looked the part.

If Ronaldo was the evening's winner, then Spain must be the losers. They looked it, hang-dogging around the pitch afterward, patting at each other noncommittally. You could see the rivets that have held this team together for a decade beginning to loosen.

You felt sure then that there are two possible ends for Spain in Russia: a deep and mythic run à la West Germany or a humiliating, early collapse in the French fashion. Either way, the sure winners are neutral viewers and soap-opera aficionados.

Associated Graphic

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo scores his third goal of the game from a free kick to complete his hat-trick during a World Cup game against Spain in Sochi, Russia on Friday. Spain and Portugal tied 3-3.


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