Well that was interesting, to employ that over-used English adjective. But you have to wonder about Nacho, a player who has spent the last 7 years on the training ground with Ronaldo, trying to work out how to nullify his attempts at the step-over. And then it happens – the World Cup, fourth minute, and your mate is bearing down on you, in an unusually coloured red shirt. He does the step-over that you expect, but you fall for the trick, hook line and sinker. Not only that, but you let your mate (CR7) make contact with you, and not the other way around. Penalty, and suddenly Spain’s rather wet week is looking like it might just get diluvial.
In the absence of Carvajal, Nacho was preferred to Odriozola by Fernando Hierro, Spain’s new coach-for-the-time-being, in a decision that seemed correct with regard to the likely development of the game, with Ronaldo raiding down the left side and the young buck Guedes in a more central role. Odriozola is a wonderful attacking full-back, but Portugal’s various offensive riches demanded a more experienced defender. Nevertheless, after 4 minutes, it was looking questionable. Fast-forward to the 58th minute and Nacho swivels his hips, leans his body perfectly to the left and volleys a shot into Ruí Patricio’s right-hand post to score his first goal for Spain and put his side 3-2 ahead. It was looking rosy, until CR7 had the last say, scoring a free-kick at his 45th attempt for Portugal and registering the first hat-trick scored by any player against Spain in the history of the World Cup.
Now there’s a thing – and what a day for Ronaldo. I think I can recall coming home from work on various occasions in my life and recounting to those who wished to hear them the extraordinary events that had taken place on that day – a promotion, a sacking, a raise, a snarl-up of the photo-copier. But Friday for Ronaldo takes some beating. Earlier in the day it was reported that he had been condemned to a two-year prison sentence for tax fraud, subsequently over-ridden on the agreement that he would pay 18 million euros in back-pay and fines, to then take to the field and score a hat-trick against several of his La Liga mates. An emotional little day, as they say.
What does it all mean? The immediate consequence of the 3-3 result is that Iran top the group, having beaten Morocco 1-0 at the last gasp, in another entertaining game. You could see that this group will be no pushover for anyone. Iran were tough, dirty at times but impressive on the counter, and Morocco looked decent for the sixty minutes that preceded their battery failure. Neither game will be a cake-walk for Spain. Nevertheless, maybe this opening draw was what most people expected, given the quality of the Portuguese side and the difficult circumstances accompanying Spain’s opening game in the tournament. But if they defeat Iran on Wednesday, you’d expect them to go through. This also means that Spain do not seem particularly affected by Lopetegui-gate, given their resilience in patiently working their way back into the game, and then continuing to play well even after De Gea’s blunder. Portugal, lest it be forgotten, are European champions. In recent years they seem to have found a knack of getting results and progressing. They were a tough opponent to face in such a difficult week. Spain passed the test.
Other talking points? Diego Costa was excellent, scoring twice, linking up well and generally making a nuisance of himself, as of old. His tussles with Pepe put one in mind of Alien versus Predator. I’ll leave you to decide which one is which.
Costa is a Hierro sort of guy. Iago Aspas will have to work harder than under Lopetegui to justify a place in the starting line-up, but he nevertheless lends Spain a different, less abrasive approach. Isco was good too, demanding the ball and orchestrating the comeback through his sheer bloody-mindedness on the ball, holding it up and calming the storm when necessary, and at others leading the charge. Jordi Alba was imperiously fast and decisive on the left. David De Gea has now made two rather uncharacteristic errors in the last three games, one in the final friendly against Switzerland last week and more seriously from Ronaldo’s nasty but not impossible-to-gather shot. He’ll need to get his confidence back, if that’s the problem, because Fernando Hierro will be reluctant to make a change in such a crucial area. Apart from the early error, Nacho was good. He doesn’t have Odriozola’s speed, but his overall game is safer.
I watched the game with Ed Alvarez and wife in the infamous ‘Kowbar’ (nicknamed thus due to the enormous steaks it serves) in deepest Antiguo, a trendy but nevertheless traditionally Basque nationalist neighbourhood in San Sebastián. It was my fault – we’d tried to watch the game in a more neutral bar, but it was full of tourists and young ‘uns less interested in the politics of Portugal v Spain, and there were no tables. I sheepishly suggested my local Friday haunt because I knew there would be spare tables and a couple of TV’s on, always assuming the famously grumpy owner would deign to show the match. I got it right – we got a table, watched the whole game and ate some decent raciones – but I was forced to grit my teeth when the barflies decided to noisily celebrate Portugal’s goals. Then, when Costa equalised Ronaldo’s opener, Ed allowed a little ‘Sí!’ to jump from his mouth, accompanied in indiscreet stereo by his wife and an under-the-table fist pump. It was noticed, amid the silence. This encouraged an annoying group of young kids in front of us to wildly celebrate De Gea’s mistake later on, turning to us in triumph. I smiled weakly.
I don’t want to dwell on this. Eduardo, from Madrid, is too knowledgeable about Spain to have been surprised by this, and folks have a right to support whom they wish to support, for whatever reasons. But one amusing moment captured the rather surreal nature of the evening, at the precise juncture when the cameras caught Ronaldo’s painfully focused expression before launching the free-kick that brought the score to 3-3. A woman standing behind our table spat out the wonderful phrase ‘Que asco!’ (He disgusts me). I turned to her and tried a bit of irony – ‘No te mola?’ (Don’t you find him attractive?), to which she replied bitterly ‘No. Es asqueroso’ (No. He’s revolting). One second after this dark and determined phrase, the ball curled majestically into the net and the same woman leapt into the air and frothed in wild celebration. Politics eh? Let’s not go there.
I’ll probably watch Spain’s next two games from the safety of my own sofa. And much as I love the Kowbar, the wine’s better in my house.