Letting go is hard. Spain and Vicente del Bosque are proving it.
It was late on Tuesday night in southern Madrid when David De Gea arrived in the press room at Getafe's Coliseum Alfonso Perez. He and his Spanish team-mates had just been beaten 1-0 by Georgia—the 137th-ranked side in the world—in the team's final warm-up game ahead of Euro 2016, and he'd conceded the solitary goal.
The effect of it was odd. De Gea hadn't been at fault, but the simple fact he'd conceded seemed to curiously complicate things. It added to the feeling of doubt or uncertainty, the existence of which had been bemusing even before this.
So De Gea sat and responded to questions on whether he knew if he'd be Del Bosque's first-choice goalkeeper at this summer's UEFA European Championship. His answers were polite, respectful and diplomatic, but that he needed to respond to such questioning said much in itself.
"We'll see what happens on [June] 13. I'm here to do what the coach tells me," he said, expressing that uncertainty. "I'm here on the back of three good seasons for Manchester United. There's always debate about the goalkeepers, but us three will do our best."
This is an issue that just won't go away, and it's emblematic of Spain's wider situation. On Monday, Del Bosque had the chance to settle it but instead said he had yet to decide between De Gea and Iker Casillas for the starting berth in goal ahead of Euro 2016. "I don't have to make that decision now, and I'll make my mind up at a later date," he told the pre-match press conference.
This shouldn't even be a point of discussion, but somehow it is. De Gea should be entering this summer's tournament full of clarity and conviction. He's the now and the next; Casillas is the other of three. But for Spain and their manager, letting go is hard.
Right now, La Roja as a collective are positioned at the halfway point between protecting their glorious recent past and creating a future. Stylistically, they're in evolution. Tactically, they're in evolution. In terms of squad composition, they're in evolution.
They've been that way for two years now, but Del Bosque can't quite go the whole hog. There's a reluctance to definitively separate from what's gone before, so the issue persists: Casillas the icon, not simply Casillas the goalkeeper, continues to linger, De Gea remains in limbo and renewal—a positive sort of renewal—keeps being pushed away.
It's baffling that this is where Spain are.
Two years have passed since the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, where Casillas' struggles were a significant part of La Roja's collapsing empire. It wasn't simply the results themselves that were striking but the manner of them; Spain were humiliated, beaten and spat on.
After the tournament, change had to come, and for the most part it did. Xavi moved on. So did Xabi Alonso and David Villa. In the months that followed, Del Bosque introduced new faces and altered the team's dynamic, but amid all of it, Casillas remained.
For Spain, the World Cup had presented them an opportunity to part ways cleanly with "San Iker." The Brazil experience hurt, yes, but it meant that moving on didn't involve quite the same political and sentimental minefield.
Casillas after all had entered that tournament on the back of a domestic season in which he'd played just two league games. His performances in Brazil continued a trend and thus put Spain in a position in which the essence of their message could be: "This is about form, and that's how we must pick the side."
Yet Spain passed on that chance. Throughout Del Bosque's reign, loyalty and familiarity have been strong themes, and in relation to Casillas, that hasn't changed.
Every time Del Bosque has looked on the verge of being ready to move on and step forward, he's pulled back, unable to bring himself to definitively draw a line. His selections across the last two years have said much.
Indeed, since the 2014 World Cup, the manager's choices in goal have read (in order): De Gea, Casillas, Casillas, De Gea, Casillas, Casillas, Casillas, De Gea, De Gea, Casillas, Casillas, De Gea, Casillas, De Gea, Casillas, De Gea, Casillas, Casillas, De Gea.
That's not a recipe for success, but instead a reflection of indecision and of loyalty affecting logic.
Admittedly, the extent of Casillas' decline has regularly been exaggerated—some of the criticism has been startlingly savage—and some fine stops arrived during Spain's qualifying campaign for Euro 2016. The numbers are positive, too, but then those are partially circumstantial, and focusing on that alone would be to miss the point.
The veteran's rival, De Gea, is now coming off three straight seasons in which he's claimed Manchester United's Player of the Year award. In the latter two, he's been voted into the Professional Footballers' Association Premier League Team of the Year and now comfortably belongs in the discussion over the identity of the world's finest gloveman—the discussion Casillas has been removed from for several years.
That unrelenting excellence must be recognised.
For his part, Casillas has recognised that excellence from his youthful Spanish team-mate, even if Del Bosque doesn't seem totally convinced. "De Gea is no longer the future but a strong contender," the Porto shot-stopper told Cadena Cope radio (h/t Sky Sports).
More praise came when Bleacher Report recently asked Spain's longtime No. 1 which goalkeepers he would consider the five best in the game at present.
"[Gianluigi] Buffon, [Petr] Cech, [Manuel] Neuer, De Gea and [Jan] Oblak," he replied, which was notable when given that he added: "Experience is a key factor for the position of goalkeeper, so not having that could be the toughest part of being a younger goalkeeper."
Such praise is consistent with the sort Casillas has often been prepared to give to both team-mates and strong rivals. In the same recent conversation with Bleacher Report, the 35-year-old said that "Sergio Busquets, Isco and Paco Alcacer could be likely candidates" to become future reference points of La Roja after those who are now—"players like Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta."
When Casillas speaks, part of you recognises what Del Bosque continues to see. The Spain icon exudes a seniority and sense of comfort or familiarity that his harmony-first manager perhaps views as calming. Concurrently, though, it's that familiarity that could handcuff Spain at Euro 2016.
La Roja enter this summer's tournament lacking the aura of supremacy they once had. Their competition runs deep—according to Casillas, "Belgium has a great team, and we [also] have to keep in mind big national teams such as Germany or France"—and that competition no longer fears them.
For Spain, forcing through the completion of this evolutionary period is critical, but it's proving difficult. In many ways, La Roja have shown they're only looking ahead, but in others, Del Bosque in particular continues to glance back.
Right now, they're at an evolutionary halfway point, at which this uneasy De Gea-Casillas duel continues to roll on. Letting go is hard.
Iker Casillas has joined forces with equipment and sports protection manufacturer Storelli to motivate a new generation of players to be smarter, more prepared and more focused on potential versus their limits.