A winner of 89 senior caps for Spain and a member of La Selección at four FIFA World Cups™, Fernando Hierro remains a hugely relevant figure in the history of the Spanish national team – this despite never matching the phenomenal tally of silverware he accrued at club level with Real Madrid.

FIFA.com sat down with the former central defender for a trip down memory lane, reflecting on the World Cups that meant most to him.

FIFA.com: Can we start by asking you what springs to mind when we mention Spain 1982?
Fernando Hierro: The World Cup we played on home soil! I was 14 and watched it on television. Naranjito! He was the mascot, and he’s really stood the test of time. I remember how excited and motivated people were about hosting the World Cup, even though out on the field we weren’t able to go very far. And there were more memorable moments: [Marco] Tardelli’s goal in the Final and the way he celebrated; seeing how delighted the Italian Prime Minister was up in the stands; and starting to see the great man, Maradona.

If we fast forward to Italy 1990, we come to your first taste of a World Cup as a player…
For me, that meant experiencing for the first time the day-to-day tension of life at a World Cup. I went into the tournament as a youngster without much experience in La Selección, but I got the opportunity to see what a World Cup’s about, the magnitude of it, everything that goes on behind the scenes… You realise how privileged you are to be lucky enough to be involved in a World Cup. When you’re a player you go through stages [in your career] and I can now see that there have been wonderful players who’ve performed extraordinarily well for their clubs but haven’t had the chance to be there [at a World Cup].

I wasn’t fortunate enough to get on the pitch [in Italy] so had to look on from the bench, but it was still a marvellous experience. Memorable images? Michel’s hat-trick against Korea [Republic], Germany being crowned champions… I don’t remember it being a very strong World Cup tactically, but it was extraordinarily competitive. It seems like there was a wall at that stage, which we weren’t capable of knocking down.

And, what can you tell us about USA 1994?
At an organisational level it was a perfect World Cup – everything worked. The stadiums were full too, even though beforehand people had been doubtful because football wasn’t one of the country’s most popular sports. But it turned out to be a great fiesta. We saw a Bulgaria team with fantastic players playing eye-catching football, as well as a Brazil side with some very decisive performers.

Moving ahead to France 1998, Spain failed even to reach the Round of 16. Is that your biggest World Cup disappointment?
We had a great squad. That was the time to make the most of a blend of a generation of experienced players and some youngsters who were rising fast. I feel we missed a great opportunity. We felt like we could do it yet, even so, we went home after our third group game. That’s when you see how costly an off-day can be. I remember after we lost our opening match to Nigeria we went back to the hotel and just couldn’t get to sleep. It was four in the morning and we kept going over and over the game in our heads. I was rooming with [fellow centre-back] Rafa Alkorta and we simply couldn’t believe how we’d lost…

Then came Korea/Japan 2002, which was the final chapter of your international career.
It makes you realise that opportunities like that go by and don’t come back. That team grew stronger as the competition went on. We really went through the mill in the Round of 16 against Ireland, but we managed to overcome the adversity. Afterwards we felt in good shape, were very united and had plenty of confidence… but then we came up against the host nation and, even though we didn’t play a great match, I think we put in a solid display and deserved more.
I’d already made the firm decision that it was to be my fourth and last World Cup, as well as the end of my international career. It was an honour to wear La Roja shirt for 12 years and I was able to bid farewell at the age of 34, having been chosen as part of the tournament’s best XI. When you come away from major events and World Cups, you go away feeling just how huge these tournaments are. Yes, there’s pressure and a lot of tension, but it’s both a privilege and a blessing to be able to defend your country’s colours at a World Cup – a real privilege.

The following World Cup, therefore, was one you saw through the eyes of a fan…
Yes, I’d hung up my boots not long before Germany 2006. I made the decision to watch the World Cup from home, in a more passive role, but also having some involvement with the media. And that’s when you really see how your country lives and breathes a World Cup. Fortunately, when you’re playing you don’t see it that way, because you’re more isolated and focused purely on sporting issues. Players can sometimes lose sight of how much the competition moves people and the passion it generates.
That happened to be again in 2010, when I had the chance to be in South Africa in a sporting director role, when I was much more involved in organisational issues, in day-to-day dealings with the players and the coach… Images and information do filter through, but nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced in Madrid [on returning as world champions].

How much did that victory in Johannesburg mean?
We all knew that one day we’d have to break through that damned quarter-final barrier and that, from that point on, Spain would be flying, they’d feel free. That victory brought calm and peace to so many generations of Spanish footballers. That day we could finally feel at ease, because never more would we have to hear that Spain had never won a World Cup, that we would forever just be ‘hopefuls’. It felt wonderfully satisfying.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though, was it?
When we first arrived we encountered a lot of negativity… There were doubts about the organisation and the stadiums, but it turned out to be a truly great World Cup. We were delighted by how warmly the [South African] people treated us. In sporting terms, there came an extraordinarily difficult and complex period after the game against Switzerland. Keeping calm was what got us through. The way Vicente [Del Bosque], the delegation, the players and the FA kept calm played a part in our subsequent success. And later, well, the Trophy is so beautiful and it’s so heavy!

Finally, what’s to come at Brazil 2014?
When we lost against Switzerland, everyone was saying how “nobody’s ever won a World Cup after losing their first match”. And now they’re saying that “the World Cup holders have never…” Well, there’s the challenge for us – records are there to be broken.