<
>

Sergio Busquets divides opinion, but he's the key to Spain's World Cup prospects

play
Will Germany or Spain take top spot in Group E? (0:37)

Gab & Juls preview Group E at the 2022 World Cup, home to heavyweights Germany and Spain. (0:37)

Sergio Busquets has always been a player who divides. That's not going to change when Spain try to evade the patent threat of their hostile Group E rivals at the World Cup in Qatar, though his style isn't just "divide and conquer."

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

What has made him first amongst equals is that when he has the ball, he'll split opposition lines, get rival defenders going one way and rival midfielders the other. His very existence on the football pitch is predicated on fracturing organised solidity into chaotic particles. However, when he first emerged at Barcelona, the division was of a different kind.

Those who assessed the progress of academy kids thought he was slender, slow and surplus to requirements; Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, thought Busquets was football's version of splitting the atom, a talent of such explosiveness that he might prove to be kryptonite to all other super-teams. Guardiola's view prevailed, but only once the lanky, languid "pivote" had already been marked down for "should be loaned out."

When his first World Cup arrived, Busquets' presence and playing style divided fans, media and, to an extent, the 2010 champions-elect squad themselves while they were still on the rocky part of their road to ultimate victory over Holland in the final.

Vicente del Bosque wanted to use a "double pivot" system in midfield (Busquets plus Xabi Alonso), which he believed made Spain more solid defensively. (You might claim Del Bosque was on to something given that Spain won each of the last four matches of that tournament 1-0.) Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, to be fair, thought that two organising, pivotal central midfielders was one too many. With Barcelona, they'd just won the treble as a midfield trio -- Xavi on the right, Busquets in the middle, Iniesta on the left.

Busquets, universally known as "Busi," performed in that lonely position of alternating between being the last guard before the defence was breached, if Barcelona lost the ball, but also the cerebral recycler of poor possession into killer possession. He was as smart, cynical and effective in defence protection as he was inventive, visionary and sixth-sensed in attacking creativity. There's not another position like it in football.

The Barcelona trio thought that Alonso was superfluous. Del Bosque disagreed, and the media and public debate erupted, divisively, when the then-21-year-old Catalan was judged to have played only moderately well in the 1-0 opening match against Switzerland. In fact, some credited him with having contributed to Gelson Fernandes' bizarre winning goal for the Swiss.

From that day to this, Busquets has divided, for good and for bad. It even continued the other day when Luis Enrique, who utterly adores this icon of positional-possessional play, gave a brutally stark assessment of Busquets' status quo.

- Spain's World Cup squad: Ramos misses out on fairytale return

The Spain coach, who admitted he'd already begun the unlikely task of trying to persuade Busquets to think about being around to play in World Cup 2026, put into words what so many others, fans and opponents, were already thinking.

"If we can control the type of match, and make it the one we want, meaning controlling possession and dominating the opponent around their defensive area of the pitch, then 'Busi' is still the No. 1 in his position," the former Barca coach said. "If we let the game become a long-pass one, end-to-end football and abandon our style, then obviously, Busquets is no longer the 'best' pivote. But right across the panorama of world football, I don't see anyone who's better at interpreting and applying the way we want to play football. He's the pillar upon which we base our attacking and our defensive play."

This wasn't the extent of the praise Busquets gets from his national team manager. When I recently interviewed Luis Enrique he told me, only half-joking, "I'd like him to play for four more World Cups!" Nor is this the first time a coach of La Roja has gone out to bat for "Busi."

Back in 2010, in the eye of the storm after defeat to Switzerland, when debate back home utterly raged and Busquets felt unfairly singled out, Del Bosque, himself an imperious and multi-trophy winner in Real Madrid's midfield, spoke up.

"Look, if I could somehow come back as an active player right now, it would be Busquets I'd want to resemble," he said. "He literally does everything. He's continually at the disposition of the entire team, he's always helping out the nearest guy to him, he gives everything defensively and he's superb at re-starting the play when we get the ball back. When he's on form Spain's football is much more fluid."

- Group E preview: Can Spain get past Germany, Japan, Costa Rica?

Of the World Cup-winning squad from 2010, there are still 11 players who are active in professional football, but only Busquets who's still playing for his country. And the haters better restrain their bile from here, too, because if he's fit, Busquets is a guaranteed starter against Costa Rica next Wednesday.

The matches against Germany and Japan, irrespective of his form, might be quite different stories -- both of them present tests that might be beyond Spain's control to "make" them develop at the tempo and with the control that Luis Enrique desires.

It's only a few months since Busquets himself, on Catalan radio, offered a forensic self-evaluation of his strengths, weakness and opportunities. He admitted: "I'm not, and never have been, an athletically quick player. I can state that up front. But given that, if our team's not performing in the way we are supposed to and lots of negative things are occurring, or if the game is end to end and it's very vertical, with spaces popping up everywhere as a result, then I'll suffer -- but so would Usain Bolt and N'Golo Kante!

"My position, in the 'Barca-style' of play, is a pretty complicated and difficult one. In general, recently, not many footballers of this specific profile have emerged. The majority of teams use a 'double-pivot' block in the middle of midfield or box-to-box runners who thrive on being up and down the pitch non-stop. When my style of playing is working, mine is a position where you can't be moving all over the pitch -- you've got to think more than run, and you've got to constantly have a big amount of information stored in your brain."

- Faces of the World Cup: Leading nations' biggest scorers

Part of his "brains-over-brawn" attitude has been personal choice, not natural physical conditioning. Although more diminutive geniuses like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta all put serious effort into maximising their core strength and upper body strength, the truth is that there's not a big "gym culture" at FC Barcelona. Frenkie De Jong is still the same slender figure he was when he arrived from Ajax back in 2019; ditto Ousmane Dembele. Neither of them resemble the prototypes you get in the Premier League, Bundesliga or Serie A.

In that summer of 2019, Busquets went on holiday with Sergi Roberto, Marc Bartra and Cristian Tello, the latter choosing to share a pic on social media of the four musketeers on their Mediterranean yacht. Iker Casillas, Busquets' captain while winning the 2010 World Cup and himself no great fan of ultra-conditioning, chose to have a public dig (no doubt a "laddish" tease rather than outright nastiness) by posting: "Busi's body is lamentable!"

play
0:42

Faez: Fati's inclusion in Spain squad strange

Rodrigo Faez explains why Ansu Fati's inclusion in Spain's World Cup squad is a surprise.

These factors -- a lack of pace, a lack of physical power, an aversion to being made to turn and spring back to track opposing runners -- are what rivals have been trying to exploit with increasing success in recent seasons. All of which is the key to Luis Enrique's point.

It's as blunt as this: if Spain control the ball, the Catalan is a big plus. If La Roja can't keep the ball and the rival, whether Japan or Germany, constantly sprint past him or belt the ball beyond the midfield, then not only will it feel like Spain are playing with 10 men, but Busquets' errors increase, especially if he's struggling to get a grip on the flow of the match.

Spain's group -- not just the specific opponents, but the order of matches -- look pungently horrible. They are in no way guaranteed to qualify from it; just making it to the knockout stages will hinge (or pivot, you might say) on them beating Costa Rica, who can defend heroically, in match one. Starting any other way will hugely increase the likelihood of La Roja repeating their antics in Brazil eight years ago and exiting early.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that Luis Enrique achieves his aim of keeping Busquets involved at international level for another four years, until he's 38, and there's even a minor possibility this will be the Catalan's last professional season at club level. The size of his legacy -- to wit, adding a semifinal or final appearance to Spain's recent run of "close, but no cigar" tournament performances at Euro 2020 or the Nations League -- will be determined by a heap of other factors that aren't yet in play. But signing off from World Cup duty, in his fourth adventure, without flopping will take a big step forward if, against Costa Rica, Busquets is big chief of the midfield battle and Spain are dancing to the beat of his elegant orchestration, rather than to horrible music led by a conductor who's lost his baton.