Spain always a favourite

George Johnson
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Every bit as flamboyant as Gaudi's still unfinished Sagrada Familia or Dali's The Persistence of Memory, two other national symbols of surrealist style, they paint their canvas in broad, florid strokes.

Theirs is the difference between sky and earth, weightlessness and gravity.

For flowing, champagne football, the Flamenco, not the Samba, is all the vogue now. Spain is the team they'll all be chasing, aesthetically and otherwise, over the next month. The Euro 2008 champions, who spun together 10 straight qualifying wins on the trot, have tossed the perennial tag of underachievers into the dustbin.

Every bit as flamboyant as Gaudi's still unfinished Sagrada Familia or Dali's The Persistence of Memory, two other national symbols of surrealist style, they paint their canvas in broad, florid strokes.

Theirs is the difference between sky and earth, weightlessness and gravity.

For flowing, champagne football, the Flamenco, not the Samba, is all the vogue now. Spain is the team they'll all be chasing, aesthetically and otherwise, over the next month. The Euro 2008 champions, who spun together 10 straight qualifying wins on the trot, have tossed the perennial tag of underachievers into the dustbin.

Their time is now.

"Our past record," cautions coach Vincente del Bosque, "counts for nothing."

Perhaps not. But La Roja arrive in South Africa as co-favourites alongside Brazil to lay claim to the World Cup. No less a soccer divinity than Pele has gone so far as to compare this abundantly-talented Spanish side to his 1970 World Cup-winning Selecao outfit from Brazil, oft cited as the best ever.

"It would be amazing," skipper Iker Casillas told FIFA.com, "to lift that trophy. Those are just words, though. It's deeds that count and when we go to South Africa we'll be looking to make that a reality."

The reality is that depth and quality of ability available to the Spanish is unrivalled by any other nation, including the fabled Brazilians.

In goal, Casillas, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina. Directly in front of them, Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol and the attack-minded Sergio Ramos. More gaudy jewelry in midfield than you'd find hanging off Mr. T: Xavi Hernandez, 'El Illusionista' Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. In attack, peerless poacher David Villa - recently transferred to Barcelona from Villareal. Price tag? Only $70 million Cdn - ideally complemented by the pacy, powerful Fernando Torres.

Why, it borders on unfair.

No wonder, then, that in an ESPN.com SoccerNet poll of the Top 50 players prepping for this World Cup, nine were Spanish.

Other than their wealth of talent, what makes the Spanish so dangerous as they approach their World Cup inquisition is, of all things, a welcome sense of mortality. And for that, they can thank an unlikely ally, the United States.

A stunning ouster at last summer's Confederations Cup served as a painful reminder that just wandering out onto the pitch isn't enough. On June 24 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the Spanish had a good deal of sass and swagger kicked out of them by the upstart Americans. A 2-0 loss to the Stars and Stripes, born out of their own arrogance more than anything, sent seismic shock waves rippling through the footballing world.

"In a way," reckons Torres, "that defeat did us good by helping us realize that the road to the World Cup wasn't going to be easy, but that we had to stay on track. And what better way to do that than winning 10 games in a row in qualifying. We've now recovered any confidence that we may have lost that day against the United States. What matters is we're heading into the World Cup unbeaten and we want to finish it that way, without losing to anybody."

Really, the only concern are physical knocks suffered in domestic campaigns. Torres, Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta all are trying to regain fitness in time for Spain's opening match, against the Swiss on June 16.

Del Bosque, however, has been assured by the medical staff that all four should be ready to go.

"We've experienced what South Africa is all about and that's going to be useful for us," explains Casillas. "We'd never played in cold weather in June before, for example, but now we've had a taste of that. We know the atmosphere, the people and the stadiums and that means we'll adapt more quickly at the World Cup. We'll try to do better than we did at the Confederations Cup, but we know it's going to be a very demanding tournament."

That fact cannot be underestimated. If del Bosque's side does the expected and finishes first in Group H, for instance, their Round of 16 match will be contested against another pre-tournament favourite, runner-up in the Group of Death, one of either Brazil, the Ivory Coast or Portugal.

And that's just the start of the knockout phase.

"I think that the squad's always has its feet on the ground," argues Torres. "Humility is the hallmark of this Spanish national side."

"But we've realized that anybody can have a bad day and that a bad day puts you out of the World Cup," he added. "That was made very clear to us at the Confederations.

"But we now know what we have to do so it doesn't happen again. South Africa 2010 is our big chance and we don't want to waste it."

Organizations: ESPN.com, Stars and Stripes, Group of Death Confederations

Geographic location: Spain, South Africa, Brazil United States Barcelona Bloemfontein Ivory Coast Portugal

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