Spain's mounting injury problem
Vicente del Bosque didn't bring his hands to his head. He didn't kick the seat in front of him. And he didn't shout hostia at the top of his voice. In fact, he barely moved.
His moustache didn't even twitch. But on the inside, he must have been cursing his luck. Soon, it got even worse. Soon, he would be wondering what he'd done to deserve it. Jesus wept, not another one.
It was a cold and wet Wednesday night in April and Getafe was playing Villarreal. It wasn't much of a game but the Spanish national team coach was there to see some of those players he hoped to take to the World Cup and was wedged expectantly into his seat in the main stand.
Del Bosque the man in charge
A ten o'clock kick off, everyone knew that, shivering, they wouldn't be out of there until midnight - and 'there' was the middle of nowhere, a football stadium locked in alongside a knot of motorways to the south of Madrid. As if that wasn't bad enough, at half time, nothing much had happened - it would be another half an hour or so before Diego Lopez, the Villarreal goalkeeper Del Bosque was keeping an eye on, dropped one at the foot of the Getafe striker to open the door to a 3-0 home victory.
In fact, it had been dreadful.
For Del Bosque, it had been even worse. As he left his seat at half time, he turned to the man behind him and shrugged almost apologetically. "What do we do it for, eh, Vicente?" the man said, "what's the matter with us?!" There was a pause and he added: "and as if it wasn't bad enough, they go and take Marcos off you." Del Bosque sighed. "Afraid so."
The Marcos in question was Marcos Senna, Villarreal's midfielder and arguably Spain's finest player at Euro 2008. He had gone off limping. It was just another injury for Senna - despite playing through his injuries for much of the season, he has still racked over 1,000 minutes fewer than Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol and Xavi. It was just another injury for Spain - another headache for Del Bosque.
A few days earlier Cesc Fabregas suffered a broken leg against Barcelona in the Champions League. Andres Iniesta was ruled out for five weeks with his fourth muscle tear of the campaign. A few days after that, it was announced that Fernando Torres would miss the rest of the season for Liverpool after it was decided that he would go under the knife to solve a problem with the meniscus in his knee.
Some suggested that he was doing it deliberately to be fit for Spain at the World Cup, that he had sold his club down the river. Like Kaka at Real Madrid and Luis Fabiano at Sevilla, had he got a "sprained World Cup"? Was he reserving himself for what really mattered, putting club above country?
In Torres's case, the accusations were unfair. He had been playing through the pain for much of the season. He was injured in the first five minutes against Benfica and carried on for another 85 minutes. In the end, he had no choice to stop.
Besides, although the Spanish Football Federation's sporting director Fernando Hierro reassured Torres that he would have a place in the national team squad for South Africa, he will only make it by the skin of his teeth. The risk is that he doesn't make it all. The squad will be announced on May 19; Del Bosque needs to know that Torres is ready before including him.
Not just Torres. Cesc, Iniesta and Senna might not make it. Santi Cazorla, who has started less than a third of his side's games having been injured for much of the campaign, is not exactly match fit. He is unlikely to go at all.
"The good thing," said Del Bosque, "is that we have plenty of very good footballers to choose from." He's only half right: physical problems threaten too many of Spain's most important players. And their replacements are doubtful too.
David Villa has been struggling with both knees, has a minor tear in his thigh and has been playing with a special strapping after dislocating his shoulder. David Silva has ligament trouble in his right knee. Jesus Navas has ligament damage in his right ankle. Xavi has played more minutes than any other outfield player and has had a handful of minor knocks all season - at the moment he has a slight pull in his right thigh.
Of the starting XI from the final of Euro 2008, only five are completely problem free. Senna, Torres, Silva, Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc have problems ... then there's Villa, too - the country's top scorer. Seven of their most fundamental players. Plus whoever picks up new injuries in the next few weeks.
There's no need to be alarmist. Most are suffering only minor knocks or aches and pains; most will make it. But in what shape? And how many of them? As Del Bosque puts it: "we can't take injured players and although we can take players with minor problems, we can't take five or six in that condition."
Vicente del Bosque left the Getafe game early. The only good news for him was that in the final seven or eight minutes, no one else got injured. The clock is ticking down. There are less than fifty days to the World Cup and under a month until the squad is announced. For the last two years we wondered if nothing could stop Spain. Now the fear is that the one thing that could stop them, will.
About the Author
Sid Lowe lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for guardian.co.uk. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, World Soccer, FourFourTwo, and the Telegraph. He works as a commentator and panellist for Spanish, Asian and U.S. television, and has acted as translator for David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Thomas Gravesen.