The 2010 World Cup hasn't even kicked off, but Spain is being touted as one of the tournament favourites — and for good reason.
The Spanish national team sports an air of invincibility thanks to its victory at Euro 2008, a result that went a long way to help La Roja put decades of chronic underachievement behind it and rise to the top of the soccer heap.
Since the European Championship, the Spanish held down the No. 1 spot in the FIFA world rankings for over a year, posted a perfect 10-0 record in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and ran their incredible unbeaten run to 35 consecutive games before losing to the United States in June.
Spain's Euro success proved that its eye-catching brand of "champagne football," slammed as being too pretty and lacking a cutting edge, could also be effective. As a result, for the first time in decades there is a clarity and sure-footedness about the Spanish national team and its style of play.
Success leads to imitation
Spain's victory at Euro 2008 and its subsequent success in international play could lead to other countries copying its playing style and adopting a similar tactical approach at the 2010 World Cup.
Spain's pass-and-move style, which emphasizes quick ball movement and maintaining possession in midfield, allowed the Spanish to romp to victory at last year's European Championship.
Spanish club FC Barcelona used the same tactics to great effect in 2009, winning a historic treble: the UEFA Champions League, the Spanish league title and Copa del Rey.
"Obviously, different countries will take different tactical approaches and there's a level of pragmatism that comes into play. But I do think success breeds imitation," said British soccer writer Sid Lowe.
"Greece won Euro 2004 playing the most hideous, defensive and boring football and other teams copied that.
"It's created a situation in which probably for the first time there is no question mark over the way they play. Winning Euro reaffirmed their style of play," Sid Lowe, Madrid-based soccer correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, told CBCSports.ca.
"One of the things that was always talked about in Spain, for the better part of 40 years, was this constant debate of why the national team always failed. One of the things that people said was that the team didn't have a style that was conducive to winning. Not anymore."
Weak in tournaments
Indeed, Spain's record of underachievement before Euro 2008 was legendary.
La Roja qualified for 12 World Cup tournaments but managed to advance beyond the quarter-finals only once, in 1950, and its lone international success was achieved in 1964 when it won the European Championship on home soil.
It was a puzzling track record of futility for a country that boasts one of the best professional leagues in the world and the greatest club in all of soccer, Real Madrid, which has won the Champions League/European Cup a record nine times.
But the Spaniards finally shook off their label as tournament chokers, thanks to a stunning performance at Euro 2008 when they so completely dominated the field and awed opponents with their attacking style.
"By winning Euro, it finally laid to rest their reputation as underachievers and [gave] them self-belief," Lowe said. "When Spain won in Austria, they changed their destiny; they changed heir mindset. They don't question their tactics and abandon them, because now they firmly believe it's the right approach."
Spain plays tiki-taka soccer, a fast-paced, pass-and-move game, with emphasis on making a quick series of slick passes and maintaining possession as long as possible.
Defence was suspect
Tiki-taka was key to Spain's Euro victory, but not because it produced a lot of goals. According to Lowe, the most important tactical consequence of the style was that it allowed Spain to protect its suspect defence.
"If you keep the ball for the majority of the game, the other team doesn't see it and can't attack your defence and that's where tiki-taka has the greatest benefit to Spain," Lowe explained.
"If you look at their goals [from Euro 2008] you'll see a lot of them weren't a product of tiki-taka but came from counterattacks and long balls played up the field. Their short passing game was more effective as a defensive policy than an offensive policy."
Whatever the reason for their success, Spain is brimming with self-confidence ahead of next month's festivities in South Africa, but there is a growing fear it may be too confident, a fact not lost on national team coach Vicente del Bosque.
"There's a slight risk of believing too much," Lowe warned. "Del Bosque described that being the favourite is a terrible trap. The problem is that the way people are talking in Spain, it's a matter of 'We're either world champions or we're rubbish.' People will not accept anything less and if Spain doesn't win the World Cup, many will view it as a failure.
"That being said, there is, with some justification, a feeling that apart from Brazil, Spain is the clear favourite."