The only topic that seemed to be up for discussion as the fans gathered for Spain’s Group B encounter with Tahiti at the Maracana on Thursday was not whether the world champions would win, but how many goals they would inflict on Eddy Etaeta’s underdogs in the process.
Yet, in the build-up to the game there was no question of the Spanish camp taking their opponents lightly. For the players named on Vicente del Bosque’s team list, the match provided them with a welcome opportunity to shine, the majority of them having started Spain’s group opener against Uruguay on the bench.
Among the men to sit out last Sunday’s win over La Celeste, to the surprise of many, were Fernando Torres and David Villa, two of the world’s most dangerous strikers.
They were bystanders as Roberto Soldado advanced his claims for an extended run in the side with a fine goal and all-round performance against the Uruguayans, the feted duo were in no mood to show the Tahitians any mercy, a point they proved by sharing seven goals in their side’s 10-0 win over the Oceania champions.
“They’re amazing. We had no way of stopping them,” Tahiti boss Etaeta told FIFA.com after the dust had settled. “Playing like that they’ll have no problems finishing the tournament as top scorers.
Soldado, who will need to maintain his form to keep his place, concurred: “It’s reassuring to see them play like that and it shows that no one is indispensable in this team. That’s the strength of Spain.”
The goal feast will no doubt bolster the morale of two players accustomed to central roles and now fighting to win back their starting places. “It’s always great to play and get in among the goals like that,” said Villa, the scorer of a hat-trick three years to the day after netting the brace that gave La Roja their first win at South Africa 2010 against Honduras.
Though much has changed since then and the bar has been raised for Spain’s front-men, the Barcelona forward, who has now amassed 56 goals for his country in 90 appearances, was relieved to get back to his old habits. That much was clear on his face when he scored his first of the night at the revamped Maracana.
“Games like this, when the opposition play with such enthusiasm and you pretty much know it’s not going to be that tough, can be a bit strange,” he said. “We started to relax once the goals came, though.”
Seated by his side was his partner in crime, El Niño Torres, who has made life difficult for Vicente del Bosque with his four-goal haul and impressive display. “It was important for us,” he said with a smile. “We knew it was an opportunity to show what we could do and create a bit more competition. I think we achieved that.”
Torres, who is now Spain’s leading all-time marksman in the competition with seven goals, added: “It’s hard for any team to score ten goals but we know what we’re capable of. We all play in the best teams in the world and we’re not lacking in confidence. I don’t know if my performance is going to get me a starting place. All I know is I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I’ve spent more than ten years playing in this jersey.”
Admiration and respect
As the strike twins went on to explain, their goal glut had a slightly bittersweet taste to it. “Obviously we’re happy but we feel sorry at the same time for our opponents,” said El Guaje, who had countless photos taken with the Tahitians afterwards. “They gave it everything on the pitch only to end up with disappointment after disappointment.”
Just as he had been on the pitch, Torres was on the same wavelength as his team-mate and was full of admiration for the OFC champions: “I’m a Tahiti supporter now. We’ve spent some time with them and you can only admire the spirit they showed. They play with the same passion and joy that we did when we were fans.”
Warming to his theme, the Chelsea striker, who handed out shirts to several members of the Tahiti squad, added: “It’s so good to see a team like that, who don’t kick you about and try to play the game.
"They know their limitations but they enjoy themselves and I’m a fan of theirs. We respect them, and that showed in the way we played. We had to go out and give the best of ourselves, as if it were the final. And I hope we can keep doing that right the way through as well.”
The question is, will Villa and Torres start if Spain make it that far? “We don’t know,” said Torres, answering the question. “We’ll definitely try to make the grade though. It’ll be a nice problem for the coach to have.”