Spain earns the respect of French critics
The Spanish like to think that the French have got it in for them, especially when it comes to sport. And not just because the Spanish national football team had not won in France for forty-two years.
No, this goes further; this is something profound, historic, deep in the psyche. Who knows, maybe even traceable to 1808? Or it's said in Spain. It might be paranoia, but it's pervasive. And, say some Spaniards, there's proof.
France vs. Spain
Just ask Miguel Indurain and Alberto Contador, Spanish cyclists accused of doping by French media and commentators - gratuitously, unfairly, without a trace of evidence, say their Spanish defenders. Witness the actions of Michel Platini, the dastardly president of UEFA so often accused of acting against Spain - especially in the aftermath of the European governing body's ham fisted handling of incidents between Atletico Madrid and Olympique Marseilles last season.
Then there's Rafael Nadal, they say - victim of an "ugly" lack of respect from tennis fans at Roland Garros in Paris. There is something wrong with the French, they grumble. They will simply never accept Spanish superiority.
So imagine Spanish surprise on Wednesday night when the French did exactly that - loudly, publicly, and unanimously. Willingly. Graciously. Whole-heartedly.
Spain were 2-0 up against France, thanks to goals from Sergio Ramos and David Villa, whose international record stands at an extraordinary 36 goals in 55 games, just eight off Spain's all-time record. Their players were playing the ball around midfield, toying with the French, like matadors with a bull, offering them a glimpse of the ball only to snatch it away from them as their eyes lit up thinking that now, at long last, they might actually get to it.
As they did so, the now traditional chant went round the stadium; every time a French player skidded towards a Spaniard only to have to turn and chase away again, the ball denied to him, a huge ¡olé! was drawn from the crowd. The French crowd. France was being humiliated by Spain and here were the French - the bloody French! - lauding their every pass. As one Spanish newspaper put it, the Stade de France had become the Maestranza bullring.
Never mind the possibility that they had been wrong about the French, or the fact that by cheering the Spanish the French were expressing just how annoyed they were with their own national team - there were chants for their coach to resign and whistles and boos for Thierry Henry - the fact that an audience so traditionally "anti-Spanish" in the words of sports daily Marca was olé-ing Spain mean that something very special indeed was happening.
On that score, at least, they were right. Not just on Wednesday night, every night.
In truth, it hadn't been Spain's best performance. After the game, coach Vicente del Bosque insisted that his side had to play better. But that just made it more extraordinary. Because if Spain had not reached their peak, they had still looked, in the words of Arsene Wenger, "so at ease it was astonishing."
Spain cruises to victory
They had still cruised past a France side that, in theory at least (although in practice the conclusion looks very different), should be amongst the stronger sides in South Africa this summer. They had still left both the French captain and their coach sighing: "it's almost impossible to get the ball off them."
They are not the first ones to experience the crushing feeling of futility, of impotence. France had become just the latest victims of a side on a run so brilliant that it seems almost absurd - a thing of the past. The cliché says there are no easy games in football these days. For Spain, it's tempting to conclude that there aren't any hard ones either.
Spain qualified for the World Cup with an unprecedented ten wins out of ten. And if that doesn't sound quite so impressive having finished ahead of Turkey, Bosnia and Belgium, they have also won friendlies against England, Italy, France, Germany and Argentina. In fact, their current run began with a friendly victory in England, just over three years ago.
Since then, Spain has won the European Championships, becoming probably the most undisputed, deserving winners in living memory. Since then, they have played 45 games and lost just one of them (against the U.S. in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup), winning 41. Yes, 41. They have won 33 of their last 34 competitive matches.
When the French coach Raymond Domenech was asked after the game how he would counteract Spain if the two sides meet again in the World Cup, all he could muster was a shrug.
"Well, he said, "the good news is we wouldn't meet them until the final."
There was just one flaw in his plan: most French fans doubt that France will make it that far. The other half of the equation, on the other hand was a given: on Wednesday night no one whatsoever doubted that Spain will.
About the Author
Sid Lowe lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for guardian.co.uk. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, World Soccer, FourFourTwo, and the Telegraph. He works as a commentator and panellist for Spanish, Asian and U.S. television, and has acted as translator for David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Thomas Gravesen.