So often less than the sum of their parts, Spain's highly rated footballers disappointed on the world stage in 1998, never recovering from the shock of an opening defeat by Nigeria in one of the games of the French finals.
Undefeated in qualifying, Javier Clemente's squad made the short journey across the Pyrenees as favourites to top a group that also featured Bulgaria and Paraguay. The presence of players like Fernando Hierro and Raul Gonzalez, both fresh from lifting the European Cup with Real Madrid, ensured hopes were high yet despite hitting the ground running in Nantes, the Nigerians eventually brought them crashing back to earth in a five-goal thriller.
This was the Spaniards' first FIFA World Cup meeting with African opponents but they would have known better than to take the Super Eagles lightly. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, had reached the second round on their FIFA World Cup debut in 1994, and were unlucky to lose to Italy in the last 16. After beating Brazil and Argentina to win Olympic gold in 1996, they were tipped by many to go far in France. With a crop of talented players including orange-headed playmaker Jay Jay Okocha and the experience of Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic - coaching his fourth team at a FIFA World Cup - they looked the best-placed of the African contenders aiming to emulate Cameroon's exploits at Italia 90.
It was Spain who began the better on a damp day at the Stade de la Beaujoire. Their elegant short-passing game had the Nigerians chasing shadows and an early snapshot from Raul forced goalkeeper Peter Rufai into action in only the second minute. Raul then headed against the crossbar and by the 21 st minute, Spain's positive start had earned its reward. Forward Alfonso Perez was felled by Mobi Oparaku just outside the area, prompting free-kick specialist Hierro to step forward and try his luck. Spain's then record scorer, Hierro curled a low shot around the wall, through the gap where Alfonso had taken position, and past the stranded Rufai.
Whatever the impact of the film of good-will messages from the players' families that Milutinovic showed his squad before kick-off, Nigeria soon revived and were back level within four minutes. Mutiu Adepoju got between two white shirts at the near post to head Garba Lawal's corner past Andoni Zubizarreta. Albert Ferrer, the defender on the line, tried to head clear but merely helped the ball on its way.
Nigeria, inspired by their equaliser, sought a second goal and striker Victor Ikpeba threatened, only to find the side netting. Two minutes after the restart, however, the momentum swung back Spain's way thanks to a superb finish from Raul. Latching onto a fine long ball from Madrid colleague Hierro, the No10 caught the ball first-time on his left foot, flashing it across Rufai and into the net. That was Spain's cue to dictate possession yet the cries of "Ole" from their supporters would prove premature.
From a winning position, Spain let their opponents back into the game through an ill-timed error by Zubizarreta on 73 minutes. Lawal was the architect, exchanging passes with substitute Rasheed Yekini and shrugging off a challenge from Ivan Campo on his way to the byline. Yet his low cross still posed no threat until Zubizarreta inexplicably palmed the ball into his own goal. Coach Clemente had courted controversy by ignoring the claims of Santiago Canizares to keep faith with the 36-year-old and here the decision backfired.
Although the unmarked Raul missed a clear chance from Joseba Etxeberria's cross, Nigeria were now pushing forward and 12 minutes from time, Sunday Oliseh decided the match in majestic fashion. A long ball into the Spain box was headed out only as far as the midfielder and from 25 yards, he powered the ball back towards goal on the half-volley, leaving Zubizarreta with no chance.
For Spain, it proved a mortal blow. Their morale dented, they laboured to a goalless draw with Paraguay in their second match and despite crushing Bulgaria 6-1 - in what proved Zubizaretta's 126th and final international appearance - results elsewhere meant they were out. The Super Eagles, meanwhile, progressed as group winners yet failed to deal with the heightened expectations in their second-round encounter with Denmark - a 4-1 defeat in Paris ensuring they went home to almost as many recriminations as the Spanish. An unsatisfactory ending for both these sides then yet at least for 90 minutes in Nantes, they gave the tournament something to savour.