Ufarte and the origin of a winning team
They formed an inseparable partnership, first as players when they would constantly seek each other out on the pitch, and then as coaches. Luis Aragones, the midfielder with a gift for arriving late in the box, and Jose Armando Ufarte, the fast and skilful wide man, were Spanish football’s best right-flank tandem of the 1970s. Years later, they were still side by side, the coach and the assistant who changed the course of the Spanish national team’s history by guiding La Roja to UEFA EURO 2008 glory.
“I told him I’d accept on one condition,” recalled Ufarte, smiling at the memory of how he came to join his friend in the Spain dugout. “I said: ‘I’d be delighted to join you with the national team, but I’ll be telling you exactly what I think the whole time. After that, it’s your decision. If you agree with me, then great. And if you don’t, then I’ll still support you to the end. First, you’re going to listen to me though.” Aragones laughed and accepted the offer.
It was July 2004 and Spain had just been dumped out of the group phase of the European finals in Portugal. The man they called El Sabio de Hortaleza (“The Wise Man of Hortaleza”, his place of birth) had just been offered the national team job and decided to call on the services of his tried and trusted lieutenant, who had already spent seven years as a head coach in Spain’s youth set-up, winning six European titles and leading the U-20s to second place at the 2003 world finals in their age category.
In the process, Ufarte had seen the likes of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Cesc Fabregas come through the system, not to mention Andres Iniesta. After seeing him make his debut at the age of 15, Ufarte told Iniesta to build up his strength, believing he already had more than enough skill to go far.
With Spain set to begin their quest for a third consecutive European title against Czech Republic on Monday, FIFA.com spoke to Ufarte, retracing the early days of a hugely successful team that is looking to recapture the lustre it lost in Brazil two years ago.
“Luis had a strong character and neither of us had any doubt about the way the team had to play,” said the former winger. “We insisted on that and it worked out well.” Eight years on, the image of Casillas lifting the EURO trophy high into the Vienna sky remains fresh in the mind, as do memories of Spain’s subsequent achievements.
As Aragones’ right-hand man explained, however, the road was long and not entirely flat: “The results weren’t as good as we wanted. There was a lot of criticism and we changed a few players in line with our concept of the game. It was tough until we got on the right path.”
In the wake of Spain’s Round-of-16 exit at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, Aragones and Ufarte dispensed with a number of first-choice players, among them Raul Gonzalez. “The difference between a good player and a very good player is a few fractions of a second, and as the years go by you lose pace. It happens to us all,” said Ufarte, with a smile of resignation on his face. “There were a few youngsters breaking through and that’s why we decided to let him go, though it was more to do with his age than his skill.”
A question of trust The decision triggered a national debate. The coaching duo weathered the storm, however, and in June 2008 the jigsaw pieces finally fell into place. “After the second game, against Sweden (which Spain won 2-1), I saw that the team was going really well and that we had a chance,” said Ufarte. “Then came a very tough match with Italy (in the quarter-finals), and then we knew we could take on anyone.”
The game against La Squadra Azzurra, who were the reigning world champions at the time, went to penalties. Keeper Casillas was Spain’s hero, before the 21-year-old Cesc, who had not taken a penalty since his youth days, ultimately finished the Italians off. Both were Ufarte’s “boys”. In all, 13 members of that 23-man squad had played under him in their youth careers.
“We practised penalties in training: Luis with the first-teamers and me with the rest of the squad, and then I told him who took the best ones. Cesc was one of them. When extra time came to an end, we’d already decided who was going to take them.”
Then came perhaps La Roja’s finest performance of the tournament, a 3-0 defeat of Russia in the semi-finals, though there was something that displeased the famously superstitious Aragones, as a laughing Ufarte explained: “He didn’t like yellow at all. If it had been up to him, we wouldn’t have played in that shirt that day, though it turned out to be a fairly routine win.”
The final, against Germany, was not so routine, and was decided by a solitary goal from Fernando Torres, who had also scored the winner when Spain lifted the 2001 European U-16 title under Ufarte. “When the referee blew the final whistle, Luis and I hugged each other and went back to the dugout. We were so happy as it was something we’d hoped for so much.”
Despite their success, Aragones and Ufarte were promptly replaced by Vicente del Bosque and his team, who kept the good times coming. “Life is not always fair,” said Ufarte with a shrug.
He misses his friend, who died in 2014 and whom he remembers as a man with quite extraordinary motivational powers: “He was very sharp. He knew football inside out and he knew how to handle the players. His biggest asset was that he made them feel very confident and convinced them that we would be champions.”
Aragones liked to speak one-on-one with some of his players, chief among them Xavi Hernandez. “He was fundamental. He was an extension of Luis out on the pitch, an exceptional kid who had what it took to make the team revolve around him,” explained Ufarte.
EURO 2016 will be Spain’s first major tournament without Xavi in 12 years. In fact, only five members of the current squad are EURO 2008 veterans: Casillas, Ramos, Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc. So was Brazil 2014 the end of an era or a mere blip for a side still capable of challenging for silverware?
Ufarte said: “Obviously, it’s not easy to replace someone like Xavi, but I think we’ve still got some good players and we can still have a very good tournament. If we stay grounded and work hard, we could even win it, though I think things are pretty evenly balanced, with three clear favourites: Spain, Germany and France.”
Now 75, Ufarte will not be travelling to France. He will, however, be cheering his boys on, urging them to lift the trophy once again, just like they did in 2008, when he and Aragones set Spain on their way.