In a nation in which 69 percent of supporters admit to performing superstitious rituals to help their team, one wonders just how many Spaniards are wearing their underwear inside-out or avoiding the color yellow as their opening match against Switzerland approaches. Although many have tipped the current European title holders to win the cup, success is not especially familiar to Spain. For every pundit claiming that La Furia Roja will finish first, another is saying that the squad will once again fail to claim the football world’s biggest prize.
It would appear that the gods have recently bestowed their favor upon the Iberian nation, who up until 2008 had consistently failed to win a significant title. Perhaps the burden of expectation had weighed down Spain. Perhaps they just couldn’t keep up momentum, as when they impressed in the group stages in Germany before being knocked out of the second round against France. But at Euro 2008, La Roja emerged from the quarter-finals for the first time in 44 years, with their penalty-shootout win against Italy ending an 88-year spell of being unable to defeat the Azzurri. Spain went on to defeat Germany in the final and earn their place as European champions for the first time.
Spain have found their way into the records books so often recently that it is hard to keep track of all their achievements. They are the first team in World Cup history to have won 10 out of 10 qualifying matches, they won 15 consecutive matches, they tied Brazil’s record with 35 consecutive games in which they were unbeaten. But Spain’s magic lies not in their ability to simply win, but to win in a manner that leaves the world open-mouthed.
With their intricate passing and creative plays, Spain are a joy to watch. The majority of the team has been together for the past few years, and despite being composed of brilliant individual stars, plays with an almost effortless cohesion. Their only weakness is slight: the back line lacks pace, and if faced with an excellent counter-attacking team, just might allow a ball to slip behind them. But even if the stylish Spaniards allow a goal, they will be sure to fire back, using their midfield playmakers to unlock the other team’s defense and then converting short, quick passes into unstoppable goals.
How They Got Here
Vicente del Bosque’s men achieved a perfect record in World Cup qualification, winning each of their ten matches. La Furia Roja dominated their opponents and scored 28 goals in the process. Spain sealed their trip to South Africa in their eighth qualifying match, a 3-0 win over Estonia, with Iker Casillas setting a new record of 57 consecutive clean sheets in the process.
How They've Fared Before
Spain has never progressed past the quarter-finals in the World Cup. They made it that far in Korea in 2002, but only as far as the Round of 16 in 2006.
Players to Watch
All of them. Spain can practically draft a second team capable of World Cup qualification with the players that remain on the bench. That being said, here are four to whom you should pay special attention:
Xavi— Quite probably the best midfielder in the world, Xavi is the playmaking force in a master squad. With just a glance at his international statistics, one might think that 8 goals in 86 appearances is a poor showing for a midfielder. But it’s the perfect passes from Xavi, and his midfield partner Andrés Iniesta, that allow Torres and Villa to notch up their goal tallies.
David Villa— Villa is Spain’s second most prolific goal-scorer, having scored 38 goals in just 58 appearances for La Roja. Barcelona’s newest striker found the net seven times in his seven qualifying matches, and many are wagering their hard-earned cash on his winning the tournament’s golden boot. While watching Villa hit the back of the net is thrilling, I personally watch him for his almost Jekyll-and-Hyde ability to look like a monster one minute and a GQ model the next.
Fernando Torres— Although a late-season injury and operation left Torres as a doubt for the World Cup, El Niño will now certainly be involved in Spain’s run. A deft striker, Torres silenced fears over his fitness during Tuesday’s friendly against Poland by scoring one of his trademark clinical goals off a pass from Pedro. While lingering concerns might keep him from starting, at least in the match against Switzerland, look for a Torres-Villa partnership in later matches. If Torres is on the bench, Arsenal captain Cesc Fàbregas will get a start, with the formation shifting to 4-5-1.
Gerard Piqué— With just 16 caps for Spain, this young ‘en is ready to impress the world with his dominant defending. Piqué is a formidable threat on counterattacks and, at nearly 6’4", an essential presence in the box during set-pieces. He’s already scored 4 goals in the few games he’s played, so watch for this defender to find a way to get a piece of the action.
How Far Can They Get
Should the Spaniards ignore the pressure created by the "favorites" label and simply continue to play their stylish, sexy form of football, they’ll be the ones lifting the cup. If they get too caught up in their own story and start to believe themselves to be destined never to win the World Cup, they’ll still progress into the late stages, but could be knocked out by Argentina in the semi-final or, more likely, by Brazil in the final.
Kirsten Schlewitz believes herself destined never to win the World Cup, but for good reason: She's a soccer-loving Villan in Seattle, not a soccer team. You can read more of her content at 7500 to Holte, SB Nation's Aston Villa blog.