Soccer / Who's the Bosque?

Spain's head coach has made his squad a much nicer team to play with, but his countrymen still see him as a tough leader

MADRID - No one can dispute the enormous success of Luis Aragones, who coached Spain to the Euro 2008 championship, the team's first in 44 years. At the same time, he will be remembered as a divisive person with a stormy four-year tenure that ended in 2008. Perhaps the controversies he provided explain why he won't be leading his team this month in the World Cup and why Vicente del Bosque replaced him.

Coach del Bosque infused the team with calm, trust and unity - replacing an atmosphere of superfluous fighting and bitter words. It seems the new coach has managed to find a way to rid the clubhouse of intrigues. Spain qualified for the finals by winning all 10 of its victories in silky smooth fashion. Add to that the team's "Tiki Taka" style of one-touch passing, and you get one of the favorites to go all the way in South Africa.

Del Bosque, 59, is a product of the Real Madrid system, where he worked over the years in almost every position possible. He started as the team's central midfielder between 1973 and 1984. He then ran youth teams before taking over the senior team for Real Madrid's most prestigious run ever. During his tenure between 1999 and 2003, Real won two UEFA Champions League titles, two league championships, a Spanish Super Cup, a UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.

He garnered international fame as he implemented the team's Los Galacticos policy, which involved recruiting some of the world's best players in Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and Raul. Some said with that kind of lineup it's no wonder they won so many titles. Today, with the current Galacticos policy failing time and again, the answer apparently lies more with the identity of the coach.

Team associates in Madrid say del Bosque's strength was managing egos on the field and extinguishing flare-ups among Real stars. They recall particularly the clam and elegance with which he handled the publicized confrontation between Raul and Ronaldo.

"The locker room is like a chessboard," explains psychoanalyst Miguel Angel Garrido. "Del Bosque's wisdom is his ability to withdraw his pawn [his ego], so that other pieces [the players' egos] can move more easily on the board."

Del Bosque's march against the tide is not considered in Spain as an act of one man operating from his ivory tower. The country sees him as a native son who doesn't put himself above anyone on the national squad. He never talks in the singular but rather in terms of "we believe" and "we do." But it would be a mistake and an injustice to regard the Spanish coach merely as nice.

"When we leave a player on the bench, we do not feel the obligation to justify our choices," says Del Bosque.

The Spaniard knows what he wants and has no qualms about publicly assuming the ambitions of his selection as coach. "Yes, we are aspiring to a world title, although we are aware that this is a complicated undertaking," he proclaimed shortly before taking the team to South Africa.

The only time del Bosque allows himself to sound embarrassed is when reporters touch on the topic of his salary, which is reportedly greater than that of Argentina coach Diego Maradona. Frankly, I do not even know what I make," he says.

The rest of Spain, a country with some of the best soccer players in the world, do know one thing: They feel confident that with del Bosque, the team is in good hands.