For Spain it is a new day, as the label of underachiever is long gone.
For those of us who have followed the Spanish National Team for a long time, this World Cup feels… different. Spain is not the failure it was; the pretenders that can’t get it together every four years. Being the defending champs is a whole new thing. Now Spain is "in", like the Brazils and Germanys. Spain is somebody now.
My first World Cup experience dates back to when the tournament was held in Spain in 1982. I lived with my family (my father was born in Granada, Spain) there at the time, and we only had two public TV channels. Somehow though, almost all matches were shown on TV, because in Spain fútbol is serious business. For good measure I also watched plenty of documentaries about World Cup history and even cartoons with Spain 1982’s official mascot Naranjito.
Spaniards at the time already felt like… well, like the Chicago Cubs feel in baseball. Spain was "unlucky" and "cursed". The referees had it against them. Spain always had talent but could not deliver in clutch time; with only a fourth place finish in the other World Cup ever held in Brazil (1950) as a highlight.
Really, Spain never was all that. Even as a half-Spaniard I recognize Spaniards tend to overestimate themselves and talk the talk a bit too much. Arrogance has always been a downfall of the Mediterraneans.
As a matter of fact that arrogance and excess of confidence was in full swing when they debuted in 1982 against underdog Honduras. There was actually talk about a 10-0 score. Honduras played very well, took the lead, and eventually tied the hosts 1-1. Spaniards, who thought it was the year to win it all, crashed head first into reality once again. Spain had an abysmal showing throughout, also losing to Northern Ireland; and got eliminated in the 2nd Round.
That was a warning to me of what was to come: failure, talk without walk, and disappointments galore.
In 1986, Emilio Butragueno burst into the scene, but Spain fell in the quarters one penalty kick short against the best Belgium ever. In 1990, set piece defending doomed them to an early exit. In USA 1994, they lost on a late goal and to make matters worse, current Barcelona coach Luis Enrique got sucker-punched by an Italian defender and the referee missed it. It was inside the box, a possible penalty and maybe it could have been 2-2.
Then came 1998, and it was Andoni Zubizarreta’s comical own goal that led to a bad loss to Nigeria. That one loss was enough for a first round exit. By the quarterfinal matchup against South Korea in 2002, many thought Spain had a golden chance to fight for the cup… so of course they blew it… again. In 2006, Spain had a great first round and got rewarded… by facing red hot Les Bleus of France and Zinedine Zidane… no chance.
Who knew that some of those players in the 2006 squad like David Villa, Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas, Xavi Hermandez, or Carles Puyol would destroy the legacy of losing just two years later?
Luis Aragones, the head coach at the time, had already started to establish the famous tiki-taka style that eventually made Spain kings. Euro 2008 saw Spain shock powerhouses Italy and Germany en route to a long-awaited title. You see, Spain had also had its failures at Euros. Spain winning something was… just… new.
It was tempting for Spaniards to go back to the typical arrogant talk and declaring themselves invincible before the actual battle.
This new crop of Spanish players was different, though. Remarkably, players like Casillas, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi constantly emphasized that they hadn’t won anything yet and therefore had to show it and get it on the field. These players were humble and avoided any overconfidence. Meanwhile, Vicente del Bosque came in to establish wisdom and a sense of teamwork rarely seen in Spanish soccer. Del Bosque already managed a locker room like Real Madrid a few years earlier all the way to glory so he knew how to get everyone on the same page.
To me this was a huge factor in Spain’s turnaround. Spain had a system, had real talent… and a mental fortitude/wisdom that was sorely lacking in previous World Cups.
I had my doubts when South Africa 2010 rolled around. After that opening loss to Switzerland many did think: "oh crap, here we go again". However, every game after that it was a step in the right direction. Whereas other Spanish squads would make the silly mistakes and wilt under pressure, these guys were solving every problem and moving along swiftly towards unchartered territory, a.k.a. the semifinals… and then one step more for good measure. Only Netherlands now stood in the way of the miracle.
This was already a dream come true for Spain fans like me, and any doubt I had left in my mind went out the window when Casillas made the save of his life against Arjen Robben on that one-on-one for the ages. That was IT. I knew it; it was House of Spain time!
The Iniesta winner in overtime and Casillas’s tears of joy signaled the end of the national nightmare. Spain finally won it all. Let’s just say that the 40 million plus Spaniards, who already know how to party, went totally bonkers for days. You just can't imagine the feeling they had... or the partying.
You know, in the end it is stuff like this that makes the World Cup THE event.
So anyway, now we are in 2014 and Spain is not the embarrassment anymore. There is a star above the shield. Spain is grouped along with the greats like Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina. Spain is in vogue now. Pinch me.
Can Spain repeat? There is a chance, but realistically this is the swan song for the generation that rocked the World. The players are older (or in the case of Puyol already gone) and quite a few are past their prime although still very good players. Brazil is at home, though; and other squads like Argentina are extremely motivated. If somehow Spain repeats all the planets have to align for that.
It depends on how the Spanish manage this new experience. The expectations are different. Other teams have them squarely in their sights, ready to pounce. The pressure is of a different kind. If they fail, the haters will come out of the woodwork and accuse them of being a fluke.
Considering the history before South Africa, it is a fantastic place to be in regardless… and no matter what happens that star, along with the memories of a dream come true, remains forever and cannot be taken away.