[SPAIN-NETHERLANDS] The story had repeated itself so many times. Spain goes to a World Cup and disappoints, often after promising starts, never reaching the final. What went wrong in the past and why is it looking good for the Spaniards in South Africa?
Despite Spain having one of the world’s top leagues for more than half a century and producing world-class players at an impressive rate, Spain had won only one major title, the 1964 European Championship, before winning Euro 2008.
Spain also tended to exit early in big tournaments. Only once in its previous 11 World Cup appearances had it reached the final four, and that was in 1950, in what was a 16-team tournament.
At the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, Spain won all of its group games, then fell in the quarterfinals and round of 16, respectively.
In his excellent book about Spanish soccer, author Phil Ball investigated what he called, “The perplexing failure of the national team” and wrote that “Cervantes would enjoyed the antics of the national team, for they have been nothing if not Quixotic.”
Usually, after each failure, there would be a scapegoat. In 1994, Julio Salinas choked on a golden opportunity before Roberto Baggio hit the winner in Italy’s 2-1 quarterfinal win. The country never forgave Salinas, wrote Ball. Plus, Hungarian referee Sandor Puhl let Italian defender Mauro Tassotti stay on the field even though his elbow to Luis Enrique's nose left the Spanaird’s shirt bloodied.
In 1998, goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarretta took the blame because he deflected an innocuous Nigerian cross into the net in the 3-2 opener loss. Spain's players had tears in their eyes as they routed Bulgaria, 6-1, in the final group game because they had gotten news that Paraguay’s 3-1 win over Nigeria would eliminate them regardless.
In 2002, when host South Korea beat Spain on penalty kicks, Egyptian referee Gamal Ghandour mysteriously called back two Spain goals and his assistants stifled Spain’s attack with debatable offside calls.
At the 2006 World Cup, Spain collapsed, 3-1, to France in the second round after being perfect in group play -- giving new life to the notion Spanish players, no matter how many European titles they collect with their clubs, lose their nerves at World Cups.
Certainly that seemed to be the case the one time Spain hosted the World Cup, in 1982, when it opened with an embarrassing tie to Honduras. Beating Yugoslavia took Spain to the second round despite falling to Northern Ireland, 1-0, in its final group game. In second-round group play the Spaniards disappointed their home fans with a loss to West Germany and a scoreless tie with England.
One popular theory posed that Spain’s intense regionalism invaded the locker room. But Ball writes that, “Regionalism is almost never mentioned by the Spanish themselves.” And for sure, Basques and Catalans have long played for Spain with distinction.
The team that defeated Germany in this World Cup’s semifinal included five Catalans – Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevila, Sergio Busquets and captain Xavi. And Xabi Alonso is Basque. In the 1990s, Spain was admirably captained by midfield orchestrator Pep Guardiola, a Catalan.
“The regional question seems to be the least of the national side’s problems,” Ball wrote before Spain lifted the Euro 2008 title.
More recently, Ball wrote, “Winning the European Championship in 2008 broke the strange curse that seemed to plague the squad, a curse that had forever rendered them prone to freezing on the big stage, at the moments when it mattered most. It had become such a well-known national feature that the air seemed to breathe it as a truth, as something that was just a part of Spain, like bullfighting and tapas.”
Spain won Euro 2008 playing brilliant soccer without slipping up as it has in the past. For the first time in a major competition – not counting a 1920 Olympic win – Spain defeated Italy, downing the 2006 World Cup winner in a penalty-kick tiebreaker. In the final, it beat Germany for only the second time in official competition in eight meetings.
The Spanish media hailed the Euro 2008 win with headlines such as, “Spain has banished the ghosts” and “As of now, the pessimism has vanished.”
Certainly, the squad that meets the Netherlands in the final on Sunday has shown no signs of self-doubt in South Africa. It bounced back from its 1-0 opening loss to the Swiss -- sticking with its attack-minded approach -- to reel off five straight wins and finally reach the final.