In 2008 he took over a team that had just reached the pinnacle of European football and within two years he had led them to the top of the world. His triumphant leadership continued with another continental success, Spain thus clinching an historic and unique sequence, though the subsequent fall from such heady heights was both abrupt and painful.
Following victory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and UEFA EURO 2012, the glorious spell was broken by poor results at Brazil 2014 and an underwhelming showing at EURO 2016. Vicente del Bosque thus decided to step down, though the respected supremo affirms that he would have done so anyway, even if La Roja had retained their European crown.
Prior to officially leaving his post, the Spanish strategist met with FIFA.com to give his verdict on his time in charge of La Selección. During our conversation, his sense of relief was palpable after several tumultuous weeks which have seen him, for virtually the first time in his career, publicly criticise a section of the press, as well as captain Iker Casillas, with whom he is now back on good terms.
Speaking with his customary calm and serenity, Del Bosque touched on his Spain successes, his gratitude for the job done by predecessor Luis Aragones, his optimism surrounding the legacy he himself leaves and a firm vote of confidence for his yet-to-be confirmed successor.
FIFA.com: Now that your eight-year spell as Spain coach has drawn to a close, what’s your verdict on your time in charge?
Vicente del Bosque: There’s been a bit of everything. We’ve had the opportunity to win a lot of things, but we’ve also suffered defeats. That’s sport. But I leave with a clear conscience and the feeling of having fulfilled my duty to Spanish football.
Are you left with any one overwhelming feeling? Relief, disappointment, satisfaction?
I’ve been happy coaching La Selección Española. We’ve had some very good years, including those with the World Cup in Brazil and this EURO in France, [tournaments] which weren’t so positive. The analysis I make is more of an overall one. I know that there have been very good things. We played 36 qualifying matches for major tournaments and won 33, losing just one. That is a significant statistic. We’ve stayed true to and strengthened Spain’s style of play, a style which has had so much recognition.
There’s no doubt that winning the World Cup in South Africa is the standout achievement of your time with La Roja but, trophies aside, what part of the job you did are you most proud of?
In our view, it’s the players who should take centre stage in this sport. Their behaviour has been great, they’ve been champions on the pitch and have set a good example off it. We’ve tried to make sure that was the case throughout and I think that most of the time we achieved that.
Do you have any regrets?
No, to be honest I don’t. I’m not saying that I’m leaving having completed every task I was set, because we knew that was impossible and unachievable. To have won another World Cup and another EURO would have been virtually impossible. I go with a feeling of not leaving any loose ends. We were able to continue the great work we inherited from Luis Aragones in 2008, and the national squad we leave behind is one that can and should be viewed with optimism.
You have always shown a lot of gratitude for the job that Aragones did. Can you explain to us what you inherited from him and what legacy you leave for your successor?
We inherited a style of play and a pathway that was laid out. But after that, each coach has to guide the team in their own way, depending on their background, character and personality. No two coaches are the same, but I think that at that moment in time, in 2008, the path was very well laid out for us. Now too I think the team are moving in the right direction, with the proviso that whoever comes in will need to bring in those players that merit inclusion, just as we did.
It must have been a privilege to be Spain head coach given the generation of footballers at your disposal, but what was the main downside of the job?
It’s when you have to take decisions trying to pick the best [players] and you might not get it right, because the margins involved are so tight. So, yes, I’d include that in the negative box, that sometimes when choosing players we might have wronged some of them, though not through any sense of malice at all.
When it comes to assembling any successful team, the players’ talent and the coach’s guidance go hand-in-hand. Percentage-wise, how much influence would you attribute to each of these two factors?
The main thing is to have good ‘raw material’ at your disposal and then comes the coach’s good judgement and sense of balance. There are two areas where a coach needs to have an impact. [Firstly] when the squad are together he should be a good leader and foster a friendly atmosphere within the group. And, secondly, he should provide the tools to help them become a great ‘team’ in every sense of the word.
The football world has a short memory, as you’ve experienced first-hand. In 2012 you were crowned FIFA Men’s Football Coach of the Year and success brought with it immense praise. In contrast, when things haven’t gone well criticism has been fierce. How have you handled this less pleasant side of things?
In overall terms I can’t complain. This [criticism] is normal when you lose, every one of us knows that [in football] we’re always at one extreme or the other. You can’t fight against those who are permanently against La Selección. But in general terms I’m not unhappy. We’ve generated more warmth and affection than otherwise.
Spain achieved success playing with a very characteristic style but, after what happened at Brazil 2014 and EURO 2016, this has come up for debate. In your opinion, should this style be non-negotiable, as Xavi Hernandez often says, or is it perhaps time to try something new?
That’s a decision for the new coach and I don’t think I should have any say at all. I’m keeping out of it. Whoever comes in will decide and will get it right.
Do you have any advice for your successor?
No, no, no, not at all. Each one of us sees football in a different way and what seems right to me might not be shared by the next in charge… The next coach must be given absolute freedom to shape things as he sees fit.
And, how do you expect your life to be like in retirement? Is there anything you’re drawn towards doing?
I still haven’t really thought about it, but I’m not someone who is nostalgic and lives in the past. We’ll try and live life as best we can and with fewer responsibilities we’ll be more relaxed. For the moment, [I intend to] spend time with my family and try to look after our health, which is what’s most important.
Is there one particular message you received on your departure that has moved you most?
There have been lots, so many of them. From friends, players, people in football, anonymous fans. They’ve all been kind messages, so I step away [from football] a very grateful man.