FC Shakhtar Donetsk's secluded, leafy Kirsha training ground is a world away from the cauldron of noise and pressure of the Donbass Arena on Wednesday night, where Spain lined up to take penalties against Portugal – but it is the place to begin our short story.
A shiny, new, well-appointed place, it has azure-blue lanterns placed around the pitch at two metre intervals. While the Spanish players trained late at night, those torches crackled and buzzed like raw electricity while bugs and flying biting things were drawn to the light and extinguished as a threat. It was a bizarre soundtrack.
Three-quarters of Vicente del Bosque's side were practising passing exercises, one or two were allowed to joke around (Gerard Piqué amused himself with the odd 60-metre 'pass' right into the phalanx of cameramen and women who were parked to the left of Iker Casillas's goal), but at the far end Pepe Reina had been designated as penalty stopper while a handful of men, those who might be required to participate in a shoot-out against Portugal the following evening, were told to practise.
Those selected were Santi Cazorla, Andrés Iniesta, Álvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos. What do you make of that? Casillas wasn't asked to have penalty after penalty blasted past him so that his immense composure would not be ruffled. Regular takers like Cesc Fàbregas, Juan Mata, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Llorente, Fernando Torres and Xavi Hernández weren't asked to take any.
There was no drama. The training session carried on around them and Del Bosque worked on other matters. It was a dusting off of cobwebs, Reina did the other thing he's brilliant at, setting a jocular but competitive mood, and to be there was to understand that Del Bosque saw a good chance of stalemate after 120 minutes.
The debate about the correlation between practising penalties and taking them under pressure will rage on but I'm certain – working on your technique, getting in the groove, does no harm at all.
In the end Piqué scored, rather splendidly, and Ramos chipped over Rui Patrício. "I thought about that penalty during training on Tuesday night but I didn't want to show it to the media so I kept it to myself," said the Real Madrid CF defender, who missed a spot kick when FC Bayern München eliminated his club in this season's UEFA Champions League semi-final.
Practice won't make perfection – some penalties will still be missed – but the whole exercise was a microcosm of what has made Spain great. Work on your technique harder than the next guy and you'll usually beat him. As Jackie Stewart, Formula 1 world champion, always told me when I worked with him: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." Lucky, lucky Spain.
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