Fearless Spain ready for World Cup
U.S. president Franklin D Roosevelt famously insisted that the only thing to fear was fear itself.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque would say exactly the opposite. The only thing Spain has to fear as it prepares for this summer's World Cup in South Africa is the complete lack of fear.
As Del Bosque strolled away from the press conference at the national team's Las Rozas headquarters this week, the sun was shining, the birds were singing and so were the fans. Even the journalists could not disguise their excitement. Fifty yards ahead of him was Fernando Torres, who had just told reporters that this time there was no doubt: Spain were favourites for the World Cup. The 'unlike every other time' went without saying.
"There's no way we can avoid the tag now," Torres said, "every time you hear players or coaches from other countries talking about the teams they fear, they say Spain. Everyone is talking about us. This time we have won the right to be considered genuine favourites. In the past we talked about being favourites when maybe we weren't - but this time we really are."
It is hard to disagree. Spain won Euro 2008 and did so brilliantly. That success did not just change its past, it appeared to change the country's future too, lifting the overbearing weight of history from their shoulders.
Especially as they won the tournament having beaten Italy, their traditional nemesis, in the quartet-finals, their traditional glass ceiling. And on penalties, their traditional undoing.
Since then, everything has been perfect. On Saturday night, they face Saudi Arabia in Austria. It is a game they should win. Raul Albiol is expected to play; if he does, and if Spain win, it will give him an international record of played: 23, won: 23. If Carlos Marchena plays, he will break the world record previously held by the Brazilian Garrincha: it would be his fiftieth - yes, 50th - consecutive international game without a defeat.
Spain qualified for the World Cup by winning ten out of ten - the first time that has ever happened. They scored 28 times and conceded just five. For those who questioned the quality of the group they were in - Turkey and Bosnia are nothing special, they said - Spain also played France, England, and Argentina in friendlies. And beat them all. In Paris, the French fans started Olé-ing Spain's every move.
After the game, France's coach admitted that there was good news and bad news: the bad news was that he didn't know how to get the ball off the Spanish. The good news was that, because of the draw, he wouldn't have to worry about that for some time: France would not have to face Spain until the World Cup final. "If," Raymond Domenech said, "we get there". He didn't doubt that Spain would.
Spain has won 33 of their last 34 competitive matches. They have been beaten only once in 45 matches - and even that has been repackaged as 'A Good Thing'. Defeat in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup by the U.S. has, they keep insisting, served as a useful lesson, a timely corrective.
Yes, everything is perfect. The sunny training camp, packed with cheering fans. The media, no longer looking for a fight. The coach, the very embodiment of likeable.
Even the squad.
Del Bosque surprised everyone last week by naming Pedro, Victor Valdes, Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez, leaving out Diego Lopez, Alvaro Negredo, Dani Guiza, Santi Cazorla and Marcos Senna - and everyone was delighted.
Frankly, this correspondent isn't sure about the Senna decision but it was, everyone agreed, the perfect squad. Right. Just. And better still, even the injuries aren't a problem any more - Torres is back in training, so too is Cesc Fabregas. Everyone has a clean bill of health.
Everything is, well, perfect.
As Del Bosque strolled out into the sun, he was handed a guidebook to South Africa: you might as well do some sightseeing while you're winning the World Cup. There were pats on the back and shouts of encouragement. We're going to win it.
But under the busy moustache and the warm smile, there was a concern. If there is one thing Del Bosque fears, it is the lack of fear. Back in February he declared the favourites tag a "terrible trap", warning against creating a feeling in which Spain were either champions or a complete failure.
He has not changed his mind.
"There was too much defeatism in the past; now, there's too much euphoria," he said on Thursday. As he strolled away from the press conference, shaking hands and posing for photos, listening to the cheers, he couldn't help noting how everyone seemed to think that Spain had won the tournament already. And he couldn't help feeling uneasy about it.
Everything's perfect, all right. Too perfect.
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.