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Spain won a World Cup in 2010, but before that, hoo buddy

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A brief look at the weird and bad history of Spain at the World Cup.

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It’s good to have Spain back, isn’t it? For those of you coming to the sport more recently, this thing Spain, who play Portugal today at 2 p.m. ET, have been doing — being good, winning major tournaments — isn’t normal. They were, for many long years, international football’s greatest underachievers: into every tournament as potential dark horses, then out again early, after finding a new way to look like donkeys.

The specifics are always different, but as Phil Ball neatly summarises in Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, there are a few themes running through Spain’s long years of strangeness:

... regional rivalry among the players, indiscipline, a failure to analyse either success or failure, and a debilitating inferiority complex. [Also] referees.

And now they’ve sacked their coach two days before the World Cup! To celebrate the return of Weird Spain, here’s a look back at all their previous World Cup exits.

Italy, 1934

The 1934 World Cup, AKA the Mussolini Show. A good rule of thumb for international football: if you absolutely have to play in a tournament held in a fascist dictatorship, try not to get drawn against the host nation. Spain blithely disregarded this principle, and as a result were kicked into a pulp by the black-shirted Italians, with the helpful connivance of some referees.

The first game ended, 1-1, with more than a little controversy over the Italian’s goal — apparently one Italian was punching the goalkeeper, another the ball — and their general roughhousing. Spain ended that game with a number of serious injuries, and suffered several more in the replay held just 24 hours later. The refereeing in the second game was so bad that the official, René Mercet, was subsequently suspended by his own football federation.

Chile, 1962

Having finished a creditable fourth in 1950, Spain promptly failed to qualify for the 1954 and 1958 tournaments. The former was down to the drawing of lots, after Spain and Turkey finished level on points in the group stage, then drew the play-off, 2-2. (It was an Italian child that drew Turkey’s name, if you’re feeling conspiratorial.) The latter, more prosaically, came down to a failure to beat Switzerland at home and a thumping in Scotland.

So on to 1962. Spain had a strong side, with the original (and best) Luis Suárez and Francisco Gento up front, and former Hungarian Ferenc Puskás behind them. However, they ended up in a difficult group and lost to both Czechoslovakia and Brazil, the two teams who would contest the eventual final. No great shame there, although things might have been different had Alfredo di Stéfano been able to play. The great man had picked up an injury in training after a violent tackle … from his own coach.

England, 1966

Another World Cup, another tough draw, another group stage exit. West Germany and Argentina were the teams in question: one got to the final, while the other were controversially beaten in the quarters by eventual winners England. But it’s worth enjoying this description of West Germany’s winner, from Cris Freddi:

[Lothar Emmerich] equalised with a staggering goal, chasing a loose ball to the left-hand goal line and battering it into the net from an impossible angle. It happened so fast and implausibly that one of the Spaniards cleared the ball upfield like a schoolboy hoping teacher hadn’t noticed.

Worth a try.

Argentina, 1978

Here’s Phil Ball again: “For the selección the 1970s, like its haircuts, are best forgotten.”

Spain, 1982

As hosts, Spain didn’t have to qualify for the 1982 tournament, which was perhaps just as well: they weren’t very good. In their opening game against lowly Honduras, they needed a generous penalty to manage a draw, and more largesse from the officials helped them to a unconvincing win over Yugoslavia. A goalkeeping error from Luis Arconada then helped Northern Ireland to their most famous international win, and both sides went on to the second group stage.

Yes, second group stage. FIFA have never been shy of making the simple things complicated. Thanks to that defeat by Northern Ireland, Spain ended up in a group with West Germany and England. A loss to the former, featuring another limp piece of goalkeeping, and a goalless draw with the latter put them out.

Of course, the real problem was socks. Socks and symbols. The arguments over whether Spain’s Basque, Catalan, and Galician players feel Spanish enough is an old and well-trodden one, and such divisions, whether real or imagined, are frequently used to explain underachievement. Much of the 1982 team were drawn from the Basque side Real Sociedad, and Arconada wore white socks throughout this tournament instead of the mandated black with red-and-yellow trim. Apparently this was an act of superstition, not secession, but not everybody saw it that way.

Mexico, 1986

Some more hard luck here — for the rest of the world — as Spain were beaten by Brazil after having a perfectly good goal disallowed. That defeat meant they finished second in the group, which set the stage for one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism in the history of football. For their opponents were the Danish Dynamite, one of the smoothest, slickest, sexiest teams the world game has ever known. Spain put five past them, a game Rob Smyth called “football’s saddest, maddest thrashing”.

Belgium did the decent thing in the quarterfinals, knocking Spain out on penalties, but it was too little, too late.

Italy, 1990

This tournament was the last international hurrah for Spain’s famous La Quinta del Buitre, the five homegrown players at the heart of the Real Madrid team who dominated Spanish football in the 1980s. Spain strolled through the group stage, but hit the post twice against Yugoslavia in the last 16, eventually losing 2-1. Emilio Butragueño, at the time Spain’s all-time top scorer, didn’t manage a single goal in the tournament.

USA, 1994

Dark horses before every tournament, here Spain were actually looking good for a run up the rails. They made it through the group stage in chaotic fashion: drawing with South Korea after playing more than an hour with 10 men, drawing with Germany, and then thumping Bolivia. Then they eased past Switzerland in the last 16, to set up a delicious-looking quarterfinal with … Italy. Always Italy.

There was to be more unpunished violence. Mauro Tassotti elbowed Luis Enrique in the face while defending a corner; it should have been a red card and a penalty, but not even the blood on the Spanish shirt could convince the referee to give a foul. Spain were the better team after equalising in the 59th minute, and then Julio Salinas broke free with 10 minutes left, only to poke straight at Gianluca Pagliuca. Roberto Baggio scored the winner a few minutes later.

France, 1998

A tale of two goalkeepers, and one stubborn manager. Javier Clemente had been in charge of Spain since 1992, and looked to be going into this tournament with a strong squad, including the young Raul up front. However, he chose to stick with 36-year-old Andoni Zubizarreta as both captain and goalkeeper, instead of the younger Santiago Cañizares.

Zubizaretta, like his manager, was Basque, while Cañizares came from Madrid, and when Madrid-based newspaper Marca asked Clemente to explain his decision, he decided to get provocative:

You don’t invite people to dinner who you feel uncomfortable with. It’s as simple as that. Zubi’s my friend. End of story.

Sadly, a good dining partner isn’t always the right choice in nets. This was a tournament too far for Zubizarreta, and it was confirmed in the cruelest way possible: Spain were 2-1 up in their opening game against Nigeria, when Zubizarreta, on the occasion of his 124th cap, palmed a low cross into his own net. Spain fell apart, eventually losing, 3-2. Zubi n’arrêta, quipped one French paper. Zubi didn’t stop it.

Spain’s shellshock lasted all the way through their next group game, a nervous and tedious nil-nil draw with a defensively immaculate Paraguay. That left Spain needing to beat Bulgaria and hoping Nigeria could defeat Paraguay. Spain finally woke up and did their part, eventually putting six past the Bulgarians, but Paraguay got the win and Spain went home.

Japan/South Korea, 2002

Spain were too good for their group, and strolled through with a perfect record, three wins from three. Things got trickier in the last 16, but they held on against Ireland and won the penalty shootout. And then came the co-hosts, South Korea, and things got very exciting indeed.

Spain had not one but two perfectly legitimate goals ruled out. The first, an Ivan Helgeura header, was chalked off thanks to some imagined shirt-pulling. The second, a header from Morientes this time, was flagged by the linesman: Joaquín’s cross had gone out of play. Except it hadn’t. It hadn’t even made it halfway across the line.

The subsequent fallout, in Spain and beyond, was messy. Helguera had to be pulled away from the referee. In the British press, Paul Hayward worked up a serious head of steam in the Telegraph:

Warning: do not cheer for South Korea … The records say that the Koreans knocked out Spain in a penalty shoot-out in Gwangju on Saturday. The records are a lie and this tournament has descended into farce.

Then he took FIFA to task for appointing officials from “minor footballing nations” — in this case Egypt and Trinidad & Tobago — who “may be more eager to impress or please their employers than, say, an elite European referee. Behind the veil of political correctness, the officiating at this World Cup is a shambles.” This was a theme picked up in Spain, as well: Ball recalls the word tercermundistas, or “third worlders”, appearing in the subsequent press outrage.

None of which quite explains why Spain didn’t really bother attacking in extra time, but hey ho.

Germany, 2006

What a wonderful Spanish squad this was. Led by a 28-year-old Raúl, it contained many of the names that would go on to lift the Euros trophy just two years later: Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos; all present, correct, and alarmingly young. They even had a 19-year-old Cesc Fàbregas as well, just in case they needed another scurrying, elegant midfielder. Not so much dark horses as front runners.

That impression was only reinforced when they strolled through the group in imperious fashion: trouncing Ukraine, 4-0, and Tunisia, 3-1, before easing past Saudi Arabia. That put them into the last 16, where they’d face France: an old, fractious squad managed by Raymond Domenech, a professional eccentric who, among other tics, publicly admitted distrusting Scorpios. They’d barely scraped through the group. This was going to be easy.

Obviously, France won. Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira suddenly remembered how to be brilliant, and the game was level going into the final 10 minutes. Thierry Henry took a theatrical tumble under a challenge from Carles Puyol and Spain, furious with the decision, let their concentration waver. Vieira poked home from the free-kick, and then Zidane added another on the break. Once again, the Spanish had flattered to deceive. It was starting to look like they might never win the thing.

Until they did.