Spain’s players emerged from the changing room in Durban on 16 June with eyes wide, ready to address the press and explain how they, the reigning European champions, had lost their opener to lowly Switzerland. None – not midfielder Xavi, young livewire Pedro or centre-back Carles Puyol – wore the haunted looks that usually accompany a poor start to a FIFA World Cup™. “It was a strange game,” striker David Villa told FIFA.com, calmly assessing the situation.
Spain are so often burdened by expectation on the world stage. They have yet to manage the weight and live up to their seemingly quadrennial tag of dark horses. The 1-0 loss to Ottmar Hitzfeld’s defensive-minded Swiss looked like the perfect continuation of La Roja’s history of underachievement and jangling nerves in a competition they have appeared in 13 times.
However, they rebounded in spectacular fashion, summoning the style and panache that saw them crowned champions of Europe for the second time in 2008. They cast aside the likes of Germany, Paraguay and Portugal in their dream run to the South Africa 2010 Final, and banished the ghosts of the past in the bargain.
“The loss to the Swiss made us stronger,” said Fernando Llorente, the lanky striker who was only making his first unsteady steps into the Athletic Bilbao first team four years ago when Spain thundered through the group stage at Germany 2006, looking likely favourites, only to crash out to France with a poor display in the Round of 16.
One man who has been essential to this new sense of Spanish confidence is Puyol. The wild-haired Barcelona defender is no stranger to Spain’s curious pains on the world stage. He played in 2002 when, led by Real Madrid stars Raul and Fernando Hierro, Spain were sent crashing out on penalties in a highly-charged quarter-final with hosts Korea Republic. Now 32, Puyol’s legendary graft has Spain looking like more than just a collection of easily-shaken skill merchants. His towering headed winner against Germany in the semi-final will have helped ease the agonies of the past.
Striker Villa has been flying at these finals too; his five goals in six games have him as favourite for the adidas Golden Boot. The hungry striker was born in Langreo, Asturias, the same gritty, mining region as one Luis Enrique, who had his nose broken by Italian defender Mauro Tassotti’s elbow in the quarter-final of USA 1994, losing a pint of blood and the game in the process. Four years later in France, the side arrived with heavy expectations once more, only to be undone by a fabulous Nigeria in their opening game. After losing 3-2 in a classic in Nantes, they drew with Paraguay to make their futile 6-1 demolition of Bulgaria a tearful extension of an unwanted tradition.
Current stars Fernando Torres, Pedro and Cesc Fabregas were not even born when Spain hosted the FIFA World Cup back in 1982. Having only ever reached the last four once before, in Brazil in 1950, expectations mounted on the Spanish team. Coach Jose Santamaria, who was in the Spanish side that finished bottom of their group at Chile 1962, selected an odd collection of players. The old self-doubts crept in, and confidence went out.
A loss to Northern Ireland in the group set the stage for a humiliating failure. Four years later in 1986 and the famous Madrid-based pairing of Emilio Butragueno and the silky Míchel were set to take on the world again in Mexico. After thrashing an outstanding Danish outfit 5-1 in a game in which Butragueno scored four, they again failed to keep the momentum and went out on penalties again in the quarter-finals to Enzo Scifo’s surprisingly sturdy Belgium. Italy 1990 proved more of the same as the side who so often failed to live up to billing went in the first knockout stage to a Dragan Stojkovic-inspired Yugoslavia after thundering through the group stage.
All manner of theories have been bandied about to explain Spain’s spectacular failures on the world stage, from rivalries and cliques in the team caused by rifts between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Spain’s history of rampant regionalism is also a likely cause. Perhaps it’s just an insidious combination of nerves and bad luck.
None of those factors seem to have crept into this recent incarnation of La Roja. Humble, brilliant on the ball, and seemingly unflappable in the face of all manner of frustrating opponents, they may well have found the answer. “We have shown that in the big moments we rise to the occasion,” said Villa, thinking only of goals and indirectly confronting Spain’s painful relationship with history.