If you like watching soccer, or more specifically a vague interpretation of what soccer might look like in five-to-10 years time, then this summer is heaven for you. I’m not referring to this month’s Women’s World Cup in Canada or even the following Copa America in Chile (yes, those will be amazing tournaments, but are merely indications of what the women’s/men’s game looks like right now). I’m instead talking about three other important competitions.
Two of them, the Toulon Tournament and the U20 World Cup, are taking place right now, while the other, the U21 European Championships, starts later this month. All of the world’s international giants will be attending at least one of these youthful affairs. Argentina, Brazil, Netherlands, England, Germany, Italy, USA; they’ll all be competing somewhere. But where are Spain in all of this? Seriously, where the hell are they?!? I’ll get to that.
Over the years, the aforementioned youth tournaments have played host to world football’s premier burgeoning talents. They’ve served as the coming out parties for superstars and super generations. You need to look no further than Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi destroying their budding counterparts at the 1979 and 2005 U20 WC (former the FIFA World Youth Championships), respectively. Or Andrea Pirlo orchestrating Italy’s 2000 U21 Euro triumph by picking up Golden Boot and Golden Ball honors in the process. Or most recently, Spain’s U21 side consisting of Thiago Alcantara, Alvaro Morata, David De Gea, Isco, Koke, and Inigo Martinez (among many others) who razzle-dazzled their way to back-to-back U21 Euro titles in 2011 and 2013, extending La Roja’s firm grip on elite international football.
Spain’s youth spike wasn’t exactly the most impressive feat in a vacuum, but it was important because of what it teased: a further era of Spanish dominance, when the previous one hadn’t even hinted at being over. Nobody expected a senior international team — much less “chokers” like Spain — to be able to win as much as they did from 2008-2012. That much was unfathomable. Therefore, the slightest suggestion that Spain were producing a conveyer belt of iron-fisted youngsters to succeed Xavi, Iniesta, and Villa, who would continue winning every trophy in sight, was daunting. While it was happening, some of us wondered if Spain would ever lose anything again.
Well, they did end up losing. Spain’s senior side tumbled out of the 2014 World Cup like a herd of baby deer toppling off a cliff. The Dutch clubbed them, then the Chileans Ned Stark’d their heads off. It was an unlikely and embarrassing end to the only international legacy to ever challenge the holiness of those legendary Brazil teams of the 1970’s. And the embarrassment hasn’t ended for Spain, as it appears to have moved on to the newest Rojitas in waiting.
While the Toulon Tournament in France in invitation-only, Spain’s U20 and U21 sides simply failed to qualify for both the U20 World Cup and U21 Euros. To be fair, Spain’s U20s were drawn in a group with favorites Germany in last year’s WC qualifying tournament (though they secured six points in said group, a single 1-3 loss in the final group game to the Germans proved to be the decider).
Their U21 Euro qualification ended much more tragically. After storming through their initial group, they eventually stumbled in the second qualification playoff stage. Their two-leg 1-2 defeat to Serbia killed any chances La Rojita had of winning a third-straight European championship title. These qualification bungles are why this bevy of crucial summer tournaments are almost entirely Spain-less.
If you’d like to watch a Roja team in action over the next month, the Women’s World Cup, beginning this Saturday, is where to look. There you’ll find an undeniably Spanish side in practice and spirit led by Galician and new Bayern Munich attacker Veronica Boquete. The occasion will mark the first time the Spain Women’s team has ever qualified for a WC.
Although the women’s game doesn’t — yet — fluidly translate to the overall direction of a juggernaut like Spain’s popular footballing culture, that doesn’t change the reality that the banner of the nation will be flown solely by Boquete and company this summer. The prolific No. 9 should be enough to remind you of the stunned, but still-standing presence of La Roja in today’s international soccer world; just in case you forgot.