by Sid Lowe
Raúl Albiol has described suggestions that Spain and Croatia will deliberately play out a 2-2 draw in their final Group game as “stupid”. So much so, the Spain defender revealed, that no one in the camp has chosen 2-2 in the sweepstake put together at their HQ in Gniewino, northern Poland. For those of a suspicious mind, he added with a grin, the sweepstake was done before the competition even began.
A 2-2 draw would guarantee that both Spain and Croatia go through to the quarter-final and send Italy home, leading to Azzurri fears that they might be the victims of a pact. It is a scenario they have experienced before. In 2004, a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark knocked them out and sent the two Scandinavian teams through. Following a media visit to the team’s HQ on Friday afternoon, Filippo Ricci, Spain correspondent for Gazzetta dello Sport, left a message on the board in the team briefing meeting room. It read: “Spanish friends: please, 2-2, no.”
Italy’s players have publicly expressed their belief that Spain would not fix the result with Croatia, even if it might suit them to see the Italians eliminated rather than having to face them in a hypothetical final. Spain’s players had also dismissed such suggestions but the issue would not go away. It was on the top of the agenda in Gniewino as the current champions prepared for their final Group C game.
“A 2-2 could happen,” Albiol said. “Just as a 1-0 or a 0-1 could happen, but there is no pact, no fix, nothing like that. That’s just stupid. We will try to win as always. So will Italy and so will Croatia. I do not think the Italians really think that and we do not feel insulted [at the suggestion]. We are very relaxed about it. We know that a draw will be enough but we want to win and go through at the top of the group. They [the Italians] can rest assured that we will play to win. 1-0, 2-1, 1-1, 0-0, those are all results that can happen and so can 2-2 but there’s no pact to make it 2-2.”
Spain’s HQ is over an hour’s drive from Gdansk in rolling countryside, isolated from the tournament noise. It has been installed with pool tables, table tennis, Parchãs (a Spanish equivalent of Ludo) and even a Scalextric, as requested by Andrés Iniesta. There are games consoles too, on which Albiol usually teams up with Alvaro Arbeloa – and the pair usually play as England, potentially Spain’s opponents in the quarter-finals.
“First we have to think about Croatia. Maybe England have not been very brilliant yet but they are a very competitive team with very good players and they would be tough rivals if we faced them,” Albiol said. “As for the PlayStation,” he added, pointing at team-mate Alvaro Negredo, “ask him: he always plays with [Juan] Mata … and he always loses.”
Spain’s players have also set up a predictions league sweepstake to pass the time. Before the tournament, a huge sheet was drawn up with results for every game all the way through to the final.
“That gives a little bit of life to the games we watch together and I’m doing pretty well. I’m third. Who is top? Cesc [Fábregas], then [David] Silva,” Albiol said, before switching into cliche mode to add: “But there’s a long way to go and I am taking it every game at a time.”
This was an opportunity not to be missed. What result did he chose for Spain v Croatia? “I think a 1-0 or 2-0,” Albiol said. “No one went for 2-2. And just in case [anyone gets suspicious], we did it before the tournament started anyway.”
That left just one question: if Albiol, Silva and Cesc are the top three, who is bottom? As he strolled out the door, the defender insisted that he didn’t even know. He, after all, is fighting it out for the title. “I’m looking up the table,” he said, “not down.”