Spain ready to shake World Cup underachiever tag
The slogan splashed across Spain’s World Cup team bus says "Hope is my road, victory is my destiny." For once, that last part just might be true.
Spain is no dark horse in South Africa. The European champion’s talented squad is one of the world’s best teams and a favorite to win its first World Cup.
Led by a core of "Generation Barca" players, coach Vicente del Bosque has continued with predecessor Luis Aragones’ work of refining Spain’s playing style, which is expected to dazzle right away in Wednesday’s Group H opener against Switzerland in Durban.
"This is a group of great people, we’ve got so much quality," midfielder Cesc Fabregas said Sunday from the team’s training base. "It’s such a competitive group with a lot of hunger to win which makes me think this is our moment. I see a lot of hunger for the title and to show that Spain can be the best in a World Cup."
Perhaps David Silva’s goal against Poland in a friendly last week is most emblematic of the excitement and danger Spain’s talent possess.
Following an exquisite buildup of quick, short passes outside the edge of the area, Andres Iniesta lobbed a through ball over the defense for Xavi Hernandez, who volleyed a pass across goal for Silva to score into the open net in the 6-0 victory.
"These types of midfielders do not exist anywhere else in the world, and they’ve created the style that has brought confidence," Santi Segurola, one of Spain’s most respected sports columnists, said. "Unlike other countries, Spain never had its own style before."
Coach Helenio Herrera first tried to make Spain implement the defensive catenaccio system at the 1962 World Cup after it proved successful at Inter Milan. In the 1990s, Spain earned the tag "La Furia Roja" thanks to coach Javier Clemente’s bruising teams comprised of tough Basque players known for their physical style.
But Aragones’ decision to hedge Spain’s fortunes on its midfield – which Argentina coach Diego Maradona labeled the most technically gifted group of players today – started after a poor Euro 2004 tournament, and it continues to evolve today.
"The team is a little bit younger now and more experimental," Fabregas said. "The changes made have seen a lot of young players come up. We are a team and that’s what’s most important thing for us."
Segurola points to Johan Cruyff’s arrival as coach at Barcelona as the turning point for Spain, as the Dutchman introduced the quick-touch, possession play that characterizes the Catalan club and the national team now.
A "Generation Barca" of players was born.
"There are a number of reasons, but the principal reasons are that these are the best players that Spain has ever had and it’s a team without any complexes after its European win," said Segurola, who writes for sports daily Marca.
The Euro 2008 triumph was a major turning point, especially the quarterfinal win over Italy on penalties. But there were previous matches and technical decisions that helped the turnaround.
A must-win victory at Denmark in October 2007 turned around a struggling Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, a win that was marked by a goal scored by Sergio Ramos after 27 straight passes within the team. That goal displayed what Aragones hoped to achieve at the last World Cup but couldn’t with his changing room divided by generations.
Aragones, who had his resignation rejected by the Spanish federation a number of times during his period in charge, cleaned house and relied on "los bajitos" (the short ones) in midfield, as they are affectionately known in Spain. That also left Raul Gonzalez – Spain’s all-time leading scorer – out.
"The person who changed our mentality here in Spain, who has been the key, was Luis Aragones," Xavi said.
Aragones created belief while forging a strong bond between the players, with the abundance of stars accepting their roles. Fabregas and Xavi – good friends off the field – are among the world’s best players at top clubs, and yet Fabregas rarely starts.
"It’s very easily explained: their are players of tremendous quality in this team so you have to keep working hard and respect the decision of the coach and be ready when the chance comes," said Fabregas, who has still managed to become the youngest player to reach 50 caps for Spain. "The only thing I can do is compete. I’ve got a lot of hunger to do well with this team."
In 2006, Spain had only five players with World Cup experience – this time, there’s 11. Those include strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres, who have combined for 60 international goals. Of all players at the World Cup, only Didier Drogba has scored more international goals than Villa’s 36.
"In Germany we started well but with bad luck we went out," Fabregas said. "We need to learn that in a World Cup any team can make it tough for you, whoever it is. You have to learn from the errors."
Spain’s world Cup history is riddled with errors and disappointment, and it hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals since it’s best finish – fourth – in 1950. But it’s hard to find a weak spot in Spain’s armor, with Real Madrid and Barcelona players fielding most of the positions from top to bottom.
Opponents have learned to play Spain by defending at the back and striking on the counterattack, as the United States did in its 2-0 victory at the Confederation’s Cup last year. That is Spain’s only loss in its last 49 matches – stretching back to November 2006.
Zinedine Zidane once warned: "The day Spain begin winning they won’t stop doing so."
"We’ll see when it starts," Fabregas cautioned. "The team is very focused on the belief that we are not favorites. If you want to win this competition you have to go game-by-game and not look at anything else but the reality. And the reality is Switzerland, and we don’t want to look at anything beyond that."