Though the signs had pointed to Fernando Llorente losing out on a place in Spain's squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in favour of Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo, it was the Athletic Bilbao target man who got the nod from coach Vicente del Bosque in the end.
Unused by the former Real Madrid boss until the Round of 16, with David Villa and Fernando Torres the forwards of choice, the rangy 25-year-old made an immediate impact when joining the fray against neighbours Portugal. "I'd been waiting for this moment for a long time. I'm really happy to have made my World Cup debut and helped the team win the game," Llorente told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview shortly after winning his eighth senior cap for La Roja.
"It was an incredible moment to come on because everybody was so tense, particularly on the bench. But once you get on the field everything happens really fast, you try to do your best and you don't feel as nervous," said the 6ft 4in striker, whose touch, physical presence and link-up play after replacing Liverpool striker Torres in the 58th minute helped Spain move up a gear and unsettle the Portugal backline. "I was ready to go out there and add some more intensity to the mix. We'd had more chances than them and shown more attacking intent. I just tried to keep their centre-backs busy and hold the ball up when it came to me," added Llorente, who was denied by Portugal's outstanding custodian Eduardo moments after coming on.
"I came so close to getting a goal. I had a few chances but their keeper played really well. Thankfully David managed to find the net, at the second attempt," he said, the relief on his face clear, when describing Villa's 63rd-minute winner. "It was incredibly exciting but I missed out on the celebrations because I had to give a doping sample. But I'm still really happy to have made my [FIFA World Cup] debut in the last 16 against a big side like Portugal and played a part in our win," added Llorente, who first rose to global prominence with five goals in four games at the Netherlands 2005 edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
After we lost our first game I said it would make us a lot stronger. It was like a slap in the face and a real wake-up call.
Spain must now put the narrow win over Portugal behind them and focus on a potentially awkward quarter-final test against Paraguay. "There are no easy games here. You only need to look at our opening group match. It looked straightforward but Switzerland gave us a big fright. Sometimes things look easy but turn out not to be," said the Athletic front man. Does Llorente think that the Swiss reverse was a blessing in disguise, given that Spain recovered to top their group and then beat Portugal, who finished fourth at Germany 2006? "After we lost our first game I said it would make us a lot stronger. It was like a slap in the face and a real wake-up call. I’m glad it happened then rather than in the Round of 16.
"Other teams know how we play and so they keep things very tight at the back," continued Llorente, on opponents' efforts to stifle the Spaniards' flowing, possession football. "That tactic makes our opponents very dangerous because if they grab a goal on the counter-attack it makes life very difficult." And having failed to totally convince in the 2-0 and 2-1 Group H wins over Honduras and Chile respectively, La Selección appeared to recover their lustre against their Iberian rivals. "It was our best performance in South Africa so far. And to be honest we needed to find our form because Portugal are top-class opponents. Fortunately the team rose to the challenge," said Llorente.
"We're taking things one game at a time and at the moment we're only focusing on Paraguay. We're treating them just as we did Portugal because you can't underestimate anybody. If they're in the quarters it's because they deserve it." And as for Spain’s supposed quarter-final curse, Llorente dismissed the notion outright. "There's no reason that should even cross our minds. We're a new generation of players and most of the lads were part of the EURO 2008-winning squad. There's no point looking for bad omens. We have to stay positive, keep working hard like we've done so far and make sure we prepare properly for the match so we don't get caught out."