The Spanish national team has become the standard by which international soccer is measured, but while people have come to consider Spain a traditional power - readily grouping them in with Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina in the upper echelon of soccer nations - this association is relatively new.
Recently, Spain won their second major championship (Euro 2008), set the record for longest international winning streak (15 matches) and tied the mark for an unbeaten run (35), and gained the top spot in the FIFA world rankings for the first time in their nation’s history. It’s a newly-forged legacy which, since December 2006, has been augmented by losing only twice, accumulating the most impressive stretch of results in the history of the international game, but at a point of history where the most popular game in the world is constantly gaining a horde of new, devoted followers, their recent success obfuscates a mixed and disappointing past - a past this version of La Furia Roja, come Sunday, has a chance to bury.
Spain was not a regular qualifier for World Cups until Argentina 1978, 48 years after the first competition was held in Uruguay. Prior to that, Spain had only qualified for four finals out of ten (trying eight times), their greatest success coming in Brazil 1950 when they won their group and qualified for the four team, round robin final on the backs of Estanislao Basora and Telmo Zarra, possibly the best forward tandem in the country’s history. Zarra was a goal-per-match scorer throughout his short national team career, and Barcelona’s Basora, though not as historically prolific as his 1950 partner, out-performed Zarra in the finals, scoring five goals to the Basque striker’s four.
Spain would finish last in the final group, garnering a fourth place position that served as Roja’s standard until this year. After drawing eventual champions Uruguay in their opening match of the second stage, Spain was blown out by hosts Brazil (6-1) and lost to Sweden (3-1). Finishing behind a Brazil team that scored 22 goals in six matches and a Uruguay team that won its second title, a Spain team that contained only two players over 30 years old could have expected their return from a Franco-induced absence to be the beginning of a successful international run. Unfortunately for Spain, 1950 was to be their high-point for 60 years.
From the 1950 tournament until 1978, the Spanish failed to qualify for four World Cups. Until South Africa, the team failed to get past the tournament’s round of eight. To put that in perspective: During that time, Brazil has won all five of their World Cups, while Germany has made the final four 11 times. Argentina has won both their World Cups while Italy added their third and fourth world titles. It is out of respect for the Spanish players and league that the national team has always been met with expectations, but the history of Spanish soccer has been about failing to meet them.
Spain did win the European Championships in 1964 - or, rather, the 1964 European Nations Cup, a drastically different tournament than the current incarnation of the continental championship - but their first meaningful taste of success started, paradoxically, with the failure of 2006. That year, Spain blew through the group stage of the Germany World Cup, posting a 8:1 goal ratio before the script turned to disappointment. In the Round of 16, a France team that barely scraped through group play awoke, eliminating the heavily-favored Spaniards, 3-1. France would go on lose the final to Italy in a match that showed the Spanish that, in a competition without a great team, the tournament was theirs for the taking.
Rather than adhering to their historical pattern and looking at that upset as reason to rebuild, the Spanish federation retained coach Luis Aragones, who then retained a cadre of players that formed the core of the 2008 European Champions and 2010 World Cup finalists. Xavi Hernández became the heartbeat of the team, a central midfielder around whom Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and Xabi Alonso would work, implementing a passing, possession style that would become La Roja’s trademark. That midfield would embolden forwards Fernando Torres and, most importantly, David Villa - now on the verge of becoming the team’s leading scorer, coming off of back-to-back record-setting goal scoring seasons (12 international goals, each year). Carles Puyol remained the backbone, with starlet Sergio Ramos on the right, stalwart Iker Casillas between the posts. Still, amidst this litany of talent brought forward from the 2006 heartbreak, the most important player to Spain’s 2008 success may have been the man Aragones left behind.
From 2002 to September 2006, Real Madrid (and Spain) legend Raúl González had captained the national team. At the end of that tenure, he was the leading goal scorer and second most capped player in national team history. Simultaneously, he had become symbolic of the Real Madrid-Barcelona, Castillan-Catalan divide that was often cited as an excuse for Spanish failures. As Spain habitually failed to meet expectations, often losing France-esque matches after periods of dominant play, thoughts would turn to whether divisions within the team undermined necessary cohesion. Madrid-born Raúl, captain for both club and country, was inevitably drawn into this debate.
After a post-World Cup loss to Northern Ireland, Aragones decided to controversially move-on from his captain. Despite a loud uproar of support before the Euro 2008 squad was named, Raúl was excluded from the team, with Spain’s subsequent success confirming the legend’s involuntary international retirement. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, another Real Madrid legend, now captains the team, shepperding Spain through a 35-match unbeaten run that started a few months after Raúl was left-out of the team. Whether the difference was attributable to Raúl, Spain had previously been known as a collection of individual talents, whereas now they’re merely known as talented.
The first test of the Casillas-led Spain was that 2008 European Championships, where Spain won their first major championship in 48 years, a tournament where their captain was Castillan, their best player (Hernández) was Catalan, and their leading scorer (Villa) was Asturian. Six matches in Austria-Switzerland, six wins, and the burial of the ghosts of every talented team since 1964 that failed to live-up to expectations.
With that, Aragones moved back into the club world, replaced by former Real Madrid coach Vincente del Bosque, though the results have scarcely wavered. While Spain has stumbled against the likes of the United States (ending their winless and undefeated streaks) and Switzerland (to open South Africa 2010), La Roja was perfect through World Cup qualifying. And though the style del Bosque has employed through this tournament has been criticized by the Spanish press, it’s carried the team to unprecedented heights: the team’s first World Cup final. Regardless of coaching chances or small alterations in aproach, Spain is now in its third year as the best team in the world.
While his tactics have not elicited results commensurate with the team’s talent (riding three straight 1-0 victories through the knockout stage), del Bosque has maintained the one facet of Spanish fútbol that has become synonymous with their current ascendancy: a composed dominance of the ball, morphing into a furious quest to regain it the few times the ball’s lost.
Spanish soccer journalist Guillem Balague, speaking with the BBC after Spain’s win over Germany, may have best explained the current state of Spanish football:
"Three years ago, we decided to keep the ball, and nobody’s taken it off us. It’s just a different way of playing, one that’s wonderful to everybody. I think the neutrals have enjoyed it.
"(The style) comes not from thinking that we’re superior to the rest (of the world). In fact, it comes from thinking, `We can not compete physically with the rest. What can we do well? We’ll keep that ball.’
"And we’ve learned to also compete."
Balague’s emotions then overcame him.
"Sorry, I think you’ve got the child, not the journalist here. It’s been all our lives, hoping for a moment like this."
On Sunday, Spain will be favored to win their first world title, cementing the moment for which Balague’s nation has been waiting. Should they fail to do, Spain will leave South Africa having already provided their supporters with a historic achievement. Should they raise the World Cup, La Roja will take their rightful place amongst the soccer world’s other traditional powers.