Spain hope to play a prominent role in this summer's World Cup finals in Russia but coach Julen Lopetegui insists his team will be taking it one game at a time. Diario AS sat down to chat with him about the tournament, why he won't be revealing the full content of is preliminary list and why another big player will quite likely make the headlines in at the event - VAR.
Spain will be going into the World Cup finals on the back of two disappointments - World Cup Brazil and the 2016 Euros in France. Is now the time to buck the trend?
In our last two tournaments, things didn't turn out well for us but that doesn't automatically mean that everything we did was bad. As a team we're in good health and we'll be going to the World Cup full of ambition, high hopes and humility. Everything that has happened in the recent past, the good things and the bad things, doesn't count for anything now. We're starting off from zero. From this point on, every game has to be a conquest for Spain.
Are there any players in the 23-man squad list who was not involved in any of the qualifying games?
It's very difficult to include a player in the definitive list who hasn't been with us in the qualifying rounds. In the preliminary list, which features 35 players and has to be submitted next week, maybe there will be one or two players who didn't figure in the qualifiers. But as for the final list, we'll decide right at the last minute. We have a more or less clear idea, but there's still the odd doubt.
You'll be sending the list of 35 players to FIFA on Monday but won't be making the list available to the public - why?
We're not going to publish the preliminary list because it will include 12 players who won't feature in the final list. Of course, when the list comes out it will be a very tough moment for everyone - for the players and for me. And I would prefer that moment to be personal and private.
An obligation to fulfill, an experience to enjoy
Does it make you dizzy just thinking about your first World Cup finals?
I'm filled with hope and responsibility. I don't really stop to think about it too much. It's a fantastic experience which we should try to enjoy.
The first unwritten rule at the World Cup is to make sure you don't lose your first game, yet in South Africa, Spain lost the opening match to Switzerland then went on to be crowned world champions. What are your feelings about Spain's opeer in Russia against Portugal - the reigning European champions?
My answer's right there in the question. On the one hand, nothing is set in stone, as was shown in the 2010 edition when the team who went on to win it, lost their first game. As for Portugal, the most recent reference point we have for them in a major tournament was EURO 2016 which they won. Portugal have a player who defines an era - Cristiano Ronaldo, a highly experienced coach in Fernando Santos and a team which knows exactly what they are doing and what they want. Spain will need to be our very best against Portugal. And then after the Portugal game we meet two other very strong sides: Iran and Morocco. We'll be up against the defending European champions, and the best teams from Asia and Africa.
The Spain squad will be based in Krasnodar, which isn't among the World Cup host cities - what was behind the decision to elect that city as the base - the distance to and the venues and also the climate perhaps?
Both of those are fundamental factors which we did take into account, and also the magnificent facilities which we'll be using there to train and recover between matches. The climate is also important - conditions have to be as close as possible to what we will encounter when we are competing at the tournament.
Have you decided on the number of defenders and forwards you will include in the definitive list? Seven defenders and four forwards; or eight defenders and three forwards?
That's precisely where I have doubts. There are a number of variables open to us - and not just in those two lines of the team. Everything has an influence - from the positions which need to be filled to the players who can fit into multiple different roles. That's something which we have to decide on soon.
You used various different systems in the qualifying round. Will you be chopping and changing at the finals too?
We have changed the tactical shape of the team, that's true. But Spain's style of game during the qualifying stage has been recognizable from start to finish - and that is the most important thing. The style comes before the team's shape and the key is how the team behaves which is Spain's case, is very similar both when we have the ball and when we don't.
Have you discussed tactics with [Girona coach] Pablo Machín, who has managed to bring out the best in his team by playing three at the back?
Yes, I've spoken to him as I have with a lot of other coaches - that's our job! It's good to exchange ideas and opinions. Playing with three centre-backs also offers variations - two teams using the same system can offer totally different approaches.
Every game will be a challenge
On paper, finishing second in the group might offer Spain a more comfortable route through the knockout rounds. Have you thought much about that?
No, not for one second - for us, we have it very clear that at the World Cup, every game you play is a conquest and we will be focused solely and exclusively in our next match - there's no other way of approaching a World Cup. It's a competition in which the smallest detail, decision or apparently unimportant question could result in sending you back home. That's why our objective is to make sure we prepare well, arrive in Russia in the best form possible and take each game, one at a time, with ambition and humility. That's how you can grow as a team and this World Cup for us to continue growing and developing.
The definitive list has to be submitted to FIFA by 18 May, but you will be obliged to include several Real Madrid players who won't be available for the friendly against Switzerland on 3 June. So for that match you will have to call players who probably won't go to the World Cup - have you a clear idea about which players will play against Switzerland deputizing for the Madrid players?
Yes, we have to confect a list which will take into account the absent Madrid players, who will be joining up with the squad later because of the Champions League final. I'm not going to give the number of Madrid players, because that would be giving too much away about the list. The players who will be with us for the first week of preparations will be working hard and full of hope but also knowing that they probably won't be going to Russia.
VAR will break the rhythm of the game - Lopetegui
How much do you think VAR might influence Spain's World Cup campaign, many of our players haven't had the pleasure of playing under the microscope of a video-referee?
It's an important issue, no doubt about it. VAR is going to influence and condition many games at the World Cup. For example, using VAR will mean stopping and starting games - and that in itself has an effect on the rhythm and continuity of the game. Spain likes to have long spells with the ball and wear down the opponents, so we will need to be prepared for what will be a brand new situation for us. Of course we are going to ensure we are fully prepared for VAR scenarios, for when matches are halted then started again. I have analyzed the league where VAR is in use and I've seen that there are usually a lot of goals scored just after stoppages for VAR, which indicates that teams make full use of the break in play and concentration of their rivals. There's no point making a song and dance about it, you need to be ready for VAR.
Will you be giving the players a lecture on what to expect from VAR?
We'll be studying the ins and outs of the system with the players and we'll be making sure we're fully prepared. It's a factor that we really do have to take into account.
Piqué has said he will be calling time on his international career with Spain after Russia 2018, do you think you can change his mind? Will you try to convince him to reconsider?
I haven't spoken to Piqué about that. The players have the right and the capability to make their own decisions. With that in mind, and when the moment finally arrives, which it hasn't yet, we'll see what happens.
It's clear that Piqué is a very important player for Spain's national team. But I don't want to give a soundbite that might be taken the wrong way. What I will say is the following: we are going to enjoy Piqué while he's with us. Until when? I don't know.
Will you allow the players to use social media while they're on duty?
I'm not someone who prohibits other from doing things but I do have my opinion. As long as it's done rationally and naturally I don't see any problem.
Casillas said the other day that he hasn't retired as an international, what did you make of that?
I think it's quite understandable that he would say that, and he's right.
Back to Russia, which teams do you see as the strongest?
That's an exercise I don't like at all - there are so many strong teams! For starters, Portugal - because they are the reigning European champions. After that, all of the teams who have silverware in their collection because they have a winning mentality in their DNA; Belgium are an extraordinary side in every department... That said, it's worth remembering that every team, us included, have to go out and win every game. There's no other way around it. Your history or however many stars you might have on the chest of your shirt won't mean a thing. If it did, Italy would be at the finals for sure.