Spain arrived at their Brazilian base in Curitiba on Sunday night. It's said to be the most European of Brazilian cities and Spain are hoping to become the first European team to win the World Cup in South America. They also intend to become the first country to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962. Spain won't be put off that no team has retained the World Cup for over 50 years. Only twice in the last 12 competitions have the reigning champions made it to the final, yet Spain are confident of becoming become the first country to win four successive major honours - even if doubts persists at home and afar of how their dominance is on the wane, their cycle of success over.
Before their 2008 European championship win under the late Luis Aragones in Vienna, Spain's story was one of persistent under achievement - despite contained seriously talented players.
"We had no luck," maintains new Barcelona coach and former Spain midfielder Luis Enrique. "Sincerely. We had no luck on any of the occasions. Tassoti (an elbow from Italian Mauro Tasotti) in ’94, the illegal goal against South Korea in 2002, penalties in Euro 96, the Morientes goal which wasn’t given in 2002.
"Spain won the European championship on penalties. You need luck. Man United v Bayern Munich. You need luck, especially when the games are so tight. We had none."
Luck, maybe, but unity too. Club rivalries headed by the Barcelona-Real Madrid axis extended into national disharmony. That has all but gone, with Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernandez, two key players for Spain, close friends having played together for their country since youth tournaments in 1997. Critics may grumble that Casillas has spent most of his season as Real Madrid's reserve goalkeeper and Xavi is a fading force, but their presence and title have been key to Spain's success.
In 1998, Spain were ranked 25th in the World.
Now, the reigning World and European champions are ranked number one, their average position over the last six years. They have nothing to prove, they're already one of the all-time great international sides, yet they're not tournament favourites. Brazil and Argentina are more fancied, the former being hosts who comfortably beat Spain in last year's Confederations Cup final in the Maracana. That brought Spain's first defeat in 29 matches, but their players were shattered after a long domestic season. They may suffer the same this time and that's why Del Bosque will have confidence rotating his squad but the defeat in Brazil hardly hindered their World Cup qualification plans. La Roja won a qualifying group containing France without loss, and conceded just three goals in eight matches - fewer than any other nation. Enjoying 74% of possession across their games helped, the highest among the 32 finalists.
Spain are in an even tougher group. Their opening match against the Netherlands in Salvador on Friday is a repeat of the 2010 final decided by an Andres Iniesta volley. Iniesta and Xavi were both given their Barcelona debut by current Holland manager Louis van Gaal, who knows several of the Spain players exceptionally well after managing at Barcelona. Xavi has vivid memories of his former boss, especially on being given his European debut at Old Trafford.
"I was 18 and had been playing for Barca B in front of 1,000," he said. "I’d not even played for the first team, I was still getting the metro to training and there are 50,000 crazy Englishmen screaming in my ear. I assumed that Van Gaal was not going to make the change, but he insisted. I will always be grateful for his blind confidence and unconditional support."
Gerard Pique was 12-years-old when Van Gaal attended his grandfather's house for dinner. Pique's grandfather was a senior Barcelona director and introduced the pair, explaining that Pique has been playing well for Barça’s young team. Van Gaal pushed him so hard that he fell to the floor, before the Dutchman told him: "to be a central defender, you need to be stronger." Pique lifted the World Cup in 2010, when he was widely considered to the best central defender in the world. His form has not been his best this season, but the Pique-Sergio Ramos central pairing is hardly a weak point.
Spain will meet Chile and Australia, where they hope to continue what they're best at: dominating possession and unlocking rivals with final balls from a midfield stocked with more talent than any other. Del Bosque will rotate his squad, yet world-class footballers who'd walk into any other team will receive a minority of minutes in Brazil.
Spain have been comfortable without a recognised centre forward in matches, but the deployment of Brazilian born Diego Costa gives them an aggressive front option. They'll need that line after the retirement of Carles Puyol, the warrior like defender whose header against Germany in the 2010 semi-final in Durban saw them reach the final.
Spain are experienced but not stuffed with veterans but then nor to they contain the number of young players that their first opponents Holland posses. Those experienced heads were wily enough to negotiate win bonuses of €720,000 per man should they retain the Cup. That Germany are on €300,000 per man drew criticism in economically challenged Iberia. Such views will melt away if Spain are successful...and there's little reason why they can't be.
Andy Mitten (On Twitter: @AndyMitten)
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