Even by the standards of dick-measuring contests, the one ongoing between Chelsea and the Spanish national team has been awful for months. At some point, though, this sort of thing stops being merely dumb and threatens to become actually harmful to the players each side should be trying to protect—and we're nearing it. While battling to show who has ultimate say over when and where Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa play, the two teams might end up losing the services of both Spaniards altogether.
The latest opportunity to break out the tape measure has arisen during the current international break. When Spain manager Vicente del Bosque was drawing up his squad, Costa was still suffering the effects of an injury picked up—according to José Mourinho—on international duty. Thus, the striker was not included on the roster. On the other hand, Costa's club and international teammate, Fàbregas, was.
During this past weekend's fixtures, both men played the full 90 minutes in a win over Liverpool. For Costa, it was the first complete match he'd played for Chelsea in a little over a month. After the match, though, things started getting testy.
The Costa issue was pretty straightforward. Chelsea claimed that they had ruled Costa unfit for international play because, when the roster was decided, he really was still recovering from his long-standing hamstring and groin problems. His treatment schedule always called for him, barring a setback, to play a full match at Anfield. But many in Spain took it as Mourinho taking yet another jab at del Bosque.
Mourinho and del Bosque's quarrel over international play started early on this season. Costa had been dealing with recurrent leg injuries since the end of last season, and because of this summer's World Cup, the striker didn't have much of an offseason to recuperate. He was healthy enough to play when the Premier League season kicked off, though, and took to the new league immediately.
As Spain's new preferred marksman, Costa had to put in double duty for club and country—not the best recipe for continued fitness when you have perpetually tight hamstrings, as Costa does. Either during or soon after a few international matches, the Spaniard managed to re-aggravate his injuries and lost time on the field for Chelsea. This, understandably, upset Mourinho:
"There are no rules, no laws to protect us, just the mentality of the national coaches and teams ... It's up to them to take good care of the players or to think in a selfish way. It's up to them, not to us.
"I'm not the kind of guy to tell players not to go or to pretend they have problems. I stimulate them to go and like them to go. Our club likes players to go and succeed with national teams and play in big competitions, Euros, World Cups.
"But sometimes you have national coaches and medical departments in federations that want to establish relations and are interested in players, what they are doing, their moment in terms of physical condition and habits around matches. Some others simply don't care."
Mourinho and del Bosque have gone back and forth like that for most of the year, putting a strain on Costa, now caught in the middle. His loyalties were torn between the club that pays his wages and his desire to prove his worth and solidify his spot in the Spanish team he had only recently became a part of and had, as of then, failed to impress with. At one point, when explaining his decision to accept an international call-up in early October, he mentioned that he didn't want to start a war between club and country.
Sure enough, it looks like war is exactly what has broken out. Mourinho was happy to see Costa missing from this most recent Spain squad, even if he believed the player fit enough to play the full 90 minutes this weekend. Del Bosque, on the other hand, had to fend off the belief that Mourinho had outwitted him in getting Costa some rest during the break:
"I'm sure that some might view it as a sign of weakness on our part but that simply isn't the case. We are football people and all of us understand Diego's situation perfectly. I said the other day that he would play against Liverpool and I was proved right but putting him through two extra games would be counterproductive for his health which is why we decided against calling him."
If del Bosque could acknowledge that maybe Costa needed some time off, he was less willing to accept Fàbregas's excuse for wanting off national team duties. Cesc and Chelsea alleged that the midfielder ended the Liverpool match a little gimpy with a tight hamstring of his own, which led him to request to be replaced in the Spain squad.
Despite both Cesc and Chelsea saying he was injured, del Bosque made Fàbregas fly out to Madrid to undergo testing by the national team's doctors. This showed a lack of trust, and also could be read as retaliation for the Costa situation. Since Chelsea had Spain keeping out one player the club thought was fit enough to play for them, Spain called their bluff on the other one Chelsea tried to sneak some rest for.
And at least according to the national team, their suspicions were correct:
"We had to wait a few days to evaluate Cesc's injury and we opted for him not to continue with us," Del Bosque said. "At times we have been flexible but not in this case.
"His muscle seems all right but he complains and he is the best doctor.
"I prefer to be deceived but I cannot be distrustful. When a player of his calibre tells you that he is injured, you have to believe him."
While this sounds like a bunch of mostly harmless posturing by a club and a national team, there are real consequences to what's been going on.
Most obviously, when clubs and national teams don't coordinate on whether a player can or cannot play, and even how a player should train between the two set-ups, the risk of injury is compounded. Mourinho was probably right not to want Costa involved in most of the recent matches Spain have played, but Spain are in the early stages of Euro 2016 qualifying. They need to field their strongest team, not just to ensure entry into the tournament but to develop a level of understanding and chemistry between the players so that they perform at their best when the games actually matter. Also, national teams—and especially for a country as deep as Spain—offer incredibly competitive battles for positions. Just a couple of missed games and good performances by a rival can land a player on the bench or even on the couch back home.
In a more superficial but still dangerous sense, bouts like these about international play can get the media, fans, and even teammates set against a player. In this article in AS, the columnist calls out both Costa and Fàbregas for using what he calls the "Piqué Clause"—a term coined to describe a player who dips out on international play for injury concerns yet suits up for his club immediately after. More stridently, we also had the two Chelsea players' Spain teammate Sergio Ramos calling out his compatriots:
"There are times I have played despite having some niggles. It depends on the DNA of the player. It is difficult because this is not a club team, but the national team where you do not come here every day."
"Laying out rules is difficult. Often with injuries there can be a world of difference between what we have and what is said in public.
"Above all I would have liked the players to show the same commitment to the national team as they do to their club. You must communicate this commitment and spirit to all the new players. Whether your club pays, or the national team."
Again, let's not overstate what's going on here. Fàbregas is a national team lock and has been for a while now, so he's under no real risk of losing his spot on the roster or the confidence of his teammates. Costa, meanwhile, remains the best center forward Spain have available, and also is likely still the first option in del Bosque's ideal starting eleven.
Nonetheless, whether it's because of injury, a replacement playing brilliantly and taking one of their places, the dressing room and media turning against them, or even the players quitting to rid themselves of the headache, there are scenarios where these managerial mind games blow up in everyone's faces. Unless the two sides work together to bridge the communication gap, this all could develop into an irrevocable fissure—and it certainly doesn't seem as if anyone is going to be working together any time soon.
Photos via Getty