WOITALLA: Why Spain may finally prevail

By Mike Woitalla
in Munich

With each World Cup, the Spaniards search for a reason why things will turn out different.

Spain entered the last seven World Cups as potential champion but never passed the quarterfinals. 2006 is the year, really, says the Spanish press.

It has been citing 16th century French soothsayer Nostradamus' prediction that "in the sixth month of 2006 the King of Spain will cross the Pyrenees with his troops" and after a battle in Central Europe, "the Holy Grail will then come to Spain."

Coach Luis Aragones plays the role of king and the Holy Grail would be that 15-inch tall, 14-pound, 18-carat gold trophy that every other major soccer power but Spain has been able claim.

Spain, despite its rich soccer history, a wealth of talent and perhaps the best league in the world, has reached the final four of a World Cup once, in 1950.

Aside from Nostradamus, optimism comes from more tangible sources.

There's Spain's spectacular start in the World Cup: Its 4-0 thumping of the Ukraine and a 3-1 comeback win over Tunisia before downing the Saudis, 1-0, while resting all 11 starters from the first two games.

Going into its round of 16 battle with France on Tuesday, Spain has a 25-game unbeaten streak since Aragones took over two years ago.

There's youth. Spain's roster averages 25.3 years of age -- five years younger than France's squad on average - and this new generation, conventional wisdom goes, is far removed from the failures of the past. Only three starters - keeper Iker Casillas, defender Carlos Puyol and midfielder Xavi -- have played in a World Cup.

"These boys don't even think about the past," says 24-year-old midfielder Joaquin, who played two games at the 2002 World Cup and is a reserve on the 2006 team. "They just go to work."

Previous World Cup failures have been blamed on referees, poor goalkeeping and the notion that teams comprised mainly of stars from archrivals Real Madrid and Barcelona have lacked the unity to prevail.

Those clubs don't dominate this year's club. Several of the youngsters are English Premier League stars, such as Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, 2005 Champions League winners with Liverpool, and Cesc Fabregas and Jose Antonio Reyes, 2006 Champions League runners-up with Arsenal.

So impressive is Spain's strike force that all-time leading scorer Raul has lost his starting spot. Valencia striker David Villa, 24, has scored twice at this World Cup and Atletico Madrid's Fernando Torres, 22, has scored three goals.

Torres grew up playing on the beaches of Costa de la Muerte, Galicia's "Coast of Death."

"Every summer," says Atletico Madrid fitness coach Ramon Marcote told El Pais, "Torres played hours on end in the sand with much older players. That more than anything has made him the player he is today."

Torres captained Spain's U-17 and U-20 teams and at age 17 made his pro debut for Atletico Madrid. He has been its captain for three seasons, during which he scored 49 goals. His contract, through 2008, sets his transfer fee at $109 million.

Torres has been thriving in Spain's attack, a possession game that has led to a tournament-leading average of 20 shots a game, half of them on target

"Spain has a better a better passing game than all the other teams, including Brazil," says Aragones.

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