Spain had a week to forget but showed they remain a World Cup contender
Your manager has kept saying that all that matters, all there is, is the World Cup. Not clubs not, not contracts, none of that: just your country, your companions and the competition. And then, two days before that competition starts, he tells you he'll be leaving at the end of the tournament, that there's something beyond this. He's been talking to a club about a contract and all that. Barely a fortnight after he committed himself to the country, signing a new deal. Two minutes later, the news is everywhere. Literally two minutes and literally everywhere.
The club -- not the country -- announces it to the world in a formal communique, short but venomous. Conversations start, whispers, discussions. Some recriminations. The phone keeps going off; the thing won't stop vibrating. You wonder what will happen next and how this will change things. The answer? A lot. You go and train. And you train well, your coach later says. Only he won't be your coach much longer. In fact, by the time he says it, he is not your coach at all.
Almost 2000 kilometres away, your federation's president is fuming. He leaves the congress he was attending -- the congress he had to attend -- and heads to the airport because this is bigger. This is huge, in fact; nothing like this has ever happened before. He boards a plane, sits in seat 1A on Aeroflot 1274, and arrives late the same night. The conversations continue, some of them angry. He doesn't sleep, and you don't sleep much either.
The next morning there are more meetings as the whole world talks about this. Some talk about confrontations; one story has the captain having to be held back because he's ready to punch the president. You know that is not true, and you can laugh at some of the tales, but the damage is done. The usual suspects are enjoying this, occupying familiar trenches and turning it into a war, which is what they like best. And you're in the line of fire.
Inside, the talk is tense. You don't all have the same view, although most of you think the least damaging decision is for the coach to continue. But the president, who has only been in the job for three weeks, makes the decision, not you. On a point of principle and pride, he announces that he is sacking the coach. The World Cup starts tomorrow. Your World Cup starts the day after. Someone has to be found to take over.
By the afternoon, he is. In part, he gets the job because there is no one else and no time either. The sporting director becomes the coach. A man who, a day and a half earlier, said he has no intention of being national team manager. Now he is sitting before the press and you watch carefully. You know him, you like him too, so that's something, but two years haven't been building to this. He's done plenty in the game, but his management experience amounts to a solitary season in the second division. Staff fly in from Spain, including a new assistant and fitness coach.
After your now-former coach says a devastated goodbye and boards a plane home, you board a plane bound for the city hosting your first game. Against the European champions. The team whose star player will now be the star player for the man who was your manager a few hours ago: "The best player in the world," he calls him (which he didn't before). Focus on the World Cup. Yeah, like that's easy.
In the pregame news conference, your captain says it's like a funeral parlour and people should smile -- it's the World Cup tomorrow. You know that, but that's exactly why this has been so huge. Eventually it starts: football at last. Forget the other stuff; block it out. Out here, nothing can go wrong. So it starts, but inside three minutes, the referee is pointing to the spot. Your spot. All that and now this. Their best player -- club teammate to six of you -- scores. The clock says 3:30.
Out of nowhere, you get an equaliser and now it begins, you start to play. The ball moves the way it's supposed to: fast, precise. You're starting to feel like yourself again. And then, just before half-time, another setback. An easy shot, a dreadful mistake from your goalkeeper and you're losing again.
As Spain headed into the dressing room halfway through their opening night in Sochi, that's the scenario they faced: 2-1 down to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Spain had lifted themselves from the canvas once, when Diego Costa ran through, a one-man wrecking ball to provide lifeline. But now, here they were, on the floor again. Was there no end to this?
As they departed, Sergio Busquets booted the ball away in anger. David De Gea walked, head down, lost. He looked lost for the much of what followed (but was not, his manager and teammates later insisted, alone). When you think about how Spain were mentally, physically, folding would have been natural. But Spain didn't fold. Spain came back. This was another challenge and they passed. Within 12 minutes of the restart, they hadn't just drawn level, they had pulled ahead. And then Spain were Spain.
"This is a team that knows how it plays, that has no doubts," Fernando Hierro said. Spain's footballing identity is clear and this is a generation that has been together a long time while Hierro, the accidental manager following Julen Lopetegui's sacking by Luis Rubiales, repeatedly insisted that the idea was, well, to insist upon the idea. To respect the work that had been done, the journey they had long-since embarked upon. "We will change as little as possible," he said. The style, the football itself, gave them something to slip into, a mechanism to follow, a release from all that.
And yet ... no doubts? After everything that had happened? The play was familiar but, beyond that, there was something else: there was the personality, the collective spirit, the sense that maybe something can be built through this, a unity and a sense of purpose perhaps even more powerful that before. Hierro certainly returned to the theme of "family" after the game -- a message particularly pertinent to De Gea -- and in that there was the hint of the role he has taken on, the reason why he was entrusted to deal with this emergency. Charismatic, collective, close to his players. "A family never leaves any of its members alone, ditched," he said.
Spain impressed not only technically, but emotionally and that might be the most significant thing about their opening night. We knew they could play, but what we didn't know was how they would play after everything that happened. The response impressed.
"We have to be very proud at the way they overcame adversity. They showed conviction, commitment, pride, and personality," Hierro said, and he was right. It has not been easy, he said -- two, three, four times. "I repeat," he added towards the end, in case anyone had forgotten, "it has not been easy."
Hierro also spoke of character. They needed it and they will need it because, at the very end, they were knocked down once more. Just at the moment they were most in control, when they were more "Spain" than at any point in the game. "When you have a star like Ronaldo, any moment can change a game," Hierro said. But, he added: "I wouldn't change him for any of mine."
The draw hurt and the question now may be how they will react to that late blow. But maybe they have already shown us by the way they responded to those other blows and to the greatest crisis in the history of the seleccion: with personality and with play.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.