Though he may not be one of Los Blancos’ biggest-name stars, there can be little doubt that centre-back Raul Albiol has been a key figure in Real Madrid’s bid for this season’s La Liga crown. Having adapted swiftly to life at the Bernabeu following his June 2009 switch from Valencia, only four of his fellow Merengue squad members have played more league minutes under coach Manuel Pellegrini than the 24-year-old, a regular in the Spanish national set-up and a member of La Roja squad which triumphed at the UEFA EURO 2008.

All of which is quite a turnaround from events just six years ago, when a car accident nearly cost the rugged defender his life. “At that time all I was thinking about was getting better, football took a back seat. It took me a while to start believing again that I could get back to playing football at the highest level. I just took things one small step at a time, working hard and improving, and now that I’m here I just want to enjoy it,” Albiol told in an exclusive interview.

“I’m aware of just how far I’ve come and what I need to do to stay here, which is the hardest part. Being a Real Madrid central defender is very demanding, it’s a huge responsibility,” continued the player, whose footballing rehabilitation after the accident came during a loan spell at Getafe, before maturing and making his name back at Valencia.

Yet despite joining Madrid from Los Chés, undoubtedly a big club in their own right, Albiol soon realised that the capital outfit was a different proposition entirely. “It really hits you at first and I had the typical nerves you experience as a new boy. As a 14 or 15-year-old I’d look up to Guti, Raul or [Iker] Casillas as I watched them on TV and now they’re my team-mates! I’m very happy though, everybody’s welcomed me really warmly and I’ve settled in quickly.”

The squad is humble and hard-working and even winning the EURO didn’t go to their heads.

Raul Albiol, Spain defender.

“I’ve been really impressed by the enthusiasm and desire of Raul, and by how committed he is in training,” said Albiol, when quizzed about which players have caught his eye the most since his move. “Cristiano Ronaldo too, who’s a great pro, a great team-mate and is always joking around. He’s very different to the impression people outside the club have of him.”

Although the Madrid big-spenders have only the league title still to aim for this season, there will be no shortage of players turning out for their respective nations at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. “We’re dreaming of lifting the Trophy. It must be an incredible feeling,” said Albiol, well placed to make the cut for Spain boss Vicente del Bosque’s finals squad.

“We [Spain] have the enthusiasm, belief and desire, and we’ve also got a winning mentality. And aside from the quality the players have, our team spirit, togetherness and the good atmosphere in the dressing room are all a real plus.”

The powerful defender also had words of praise for boss Del Bosque, the man who guided Spain to a flawless South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign. “He’s a very calm person, with a lot of experience. He knows the players really well, he knows a lot about football and about being in competitions, and he enjoys communicating with his players.”

Despite the squad’s undoubted talent and the former Real Madrid coach’s impressive winning pedigree, La Roja still came undone in the last four of the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009, an exit which also spelled the end of their record unbeaten run of 35 games. “We didn’t lose against the USA that day because of a lack of humility or because we got too big for our boots. The squad is humble and hard-working and even winning the EURO didn’t go to their heads,” said Albiol, who appeared three times at South Africa 2009.

We’re dreaming of lifting the Trophy. It must be an incredible feeling.

Albiol on Spain's aims in South Africa.

“We kept our feet on the ground ahead of every game in World Cup qualifying, and we’ll be treating the World Cup in the same way. If we do get knocked out it will because our opponents were better on the day, not because we were big-headed,” said this father of two young girls, before underlining the difficulty of Group H rivals Chile, Honduras and Switzerland. “On paper we’re the favourites but you have to prove that out on the pitch. We need to make sure we win our first game. Nobody is going to make it easy for us, we’re going to have to work really hard.”

“We’ve learned (from the USA defeat) that at a major tournament you can lose to anybody. Any team can have an off day but if that happens you’re going home,” said Albiol, whose Spain team will face opponents from a fearsome-looking Group G containing Brazil, Portugal, Côte d’Ivoire and Korea DPR should they reach the Round of 16.

“Any of those teams would be difficult - it’d be a tough game but if you want to go far you have to be ready to beat anybody. Even a good team, one that’s strong and with a winning mentality, has to prove itself against any opponents.”

And even in the face of the FIFA Confederations Cup disappointment, Albiol has certainly not been put off the many charms of hosts South Africa. “We had a lovely experience in South Africa. It’s just a shame we only saw a couple of animals on our safari!” he said with a chuckle as the interview drew to a close. “We’ve noticed just how excited the South Africans are about the start of their World Cup. And it’s our duty to put on a good show for them.”