"Eight wins from eight - that's not a record many sides can boast and it's something we should be proud of. It's a pleasure to play in this team and we're all delighted to have qualified," said Cesc Fabregas, a scorer in Spain's victory over Estonia that secured their place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
La Roja's 13th appearance at the game's showpiece event, their ninth in succession, was achieved in emphatic style, the team posting eight straight wins courtesy of 21 goals. Moreover, with just two goals conceded so far, they jointly hold the best defensive record in the UEFA Zone along with fellow qualifiers the Netherlands.
Even coach Vicente del Bosque, not known for his effusive comments, paid tribute to his side's achievement, saying: "This qualification phase has been impeccable." Despite dominating their group, the Iberians had to wait until 9 September to be mathematically guaranteed top spot, thanks to the dogged pursuit of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who surprised many by surpassing Turkey and Belgium as Spain's principal rivals. The Balkan side, who announced their intentions in their opening group game, when they only narrowly lost to a Spanish team fresh from European glory, are now just a step away from a play-off berth as one of the best second-placed sides.
While some observers have installed the Spanish as favourites for the title next year in South Africa, the players and coaching staff will not be getting overconfident. On their last trip to the continent for June's FIFA Confederations Cup, they were widely expected to join Brazil in the final and set a new record for consecutive wins en route. However, no one told semi-final opponents the USA, who got the measure of La Selección and advanced at their expense. Though Spain did take home a medal after finishing third, they clearly have unfinished business in South Africa.
Unsurprisingly then, the prevailing sentiment emerging from the Spanish camp after qualification was one of modesty. "We'll go to South Africa with the same humility we adopted for this qualification campaign. That said, we know on a good day we're hard for anyone to beat. For now though, we should enjoy the moment," said star striker David Villa. "We've done well so far, but we need to keep that up and remain humble, while showing our strength game after game. It's with that mindset we'll be going to the World Cup," added defender Carlos Marchena.
We've achieved our first objective; now let's see if we can finally do well at the World Cup.
Of course, being European champions or unbeaten in the qualifiers is no guarantee of success - as Spain know all too well from South Africa 2009 and previous FIFA World Cups. La Roja went unbeaten en route to Germany 2006 (although five draws would force them to come through the play-offs) and dazzled during the group stage, only to bite the dust against France in the first knockout round. It was a similar story four years earlier at Korea/Japan, where the optimism of another unbeaten qualifying campaign carried them only as far as the quarter-finals.
The challenge ahead
The make-up of the squad has not changed radically since the success of UEFA EURO 2008, with the new faces mainly limited to emerging talents such as central defender Gerard Pique and livewire winger Juan Mata.
Curiously, at the end of last night's fixture at the Estadio Romano de Merida, the celebrations were somewhat muted. "It wasn't our best game," more than one player admitted afterwards, despite the team running out 3-0 winners. Nor were they looking to blame the sultry 35-degree heat. "Tonight we were more heavy-footed than usual and didn't move the ball around too freely," remarked the coach. It was perhaps this sense of not having matched the crowd's enthusiasm with their best football that led to the modest celebrations - a clear indication of the very high standards the team have set themselves.
Though possessed with the most exquisite of midfields and frightening passing ability, there is still a sense that Spain can struggle to find alternate ways to break down stubborn opposition, particularly when they manage to neutralise the fluidity of Xavi and Co in the middle. This dearth of options was apparent against the USA last June and has also been evident at times since then.
With nine months to go before the big kick-off, there is time aplenty to iron out problems, but also time for expectations to build. Back before then will be Marcos Senna and Andres Iniesta, who both missed the FIFA Confederations Cup through injury. Then there is David Villa, now just 11 goals shy of Raul's record as his country's top-scorer (44), and Iker Casillas, who has now equalled Andoni Zubizarreta's mark of 57 international clean sheets. The keeper also has his sights set on another of Zubi's records - that of most-capped international, of which he is currently 28 short - not to mention entry into Spain's exclusive 100-cap club alongside the aforementioned Zubi and Raul.
The final word on the night went to wing-back Joan Capdevila: "We're deserving of our place at the next World Cup. We've achieved our first objective; now let's see if we can finally do well at the World Cup."
With a little good fortune this time, who is to say it won't be 13th time lucky for the Spanish...