Spain enters Confederations Cup as team to beat
After decades of under-achievement, La Roja are on top of the soccer world.
Italy is the reigning World Cup champion, Brazil is everyone's favourite, and England the natural caretaker of the game.
But if you're looking for the best national team on the planet, look no farther than the Iberian Peninsula.
Spain has an air of invincibility thanks to its victory at Euro 2008, a result that went a long way to help La Roja put their decades of chronic underachievement behind them and rise to the top of the heap.
Since last summer's festivities in Austria and Switzerland, the Spanish have had a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the FIFA world rankings, have posted a perfect 6-0 record in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, and are riding an incredible 32-game unbeaten streak, having last tasted defeat in November, 2006.
Little wonder, then, that Spain enters this month's FIFA Confederations Cup tournament in South Africa as the side to beat.
Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque has brought his "A" team to South Africa, calling up 16 players who were on last summer's Euro 2008 winning side (the injured Andres Iniesta and Marcos Senna are the notable exceptions) in a clear sign of intent.
Spain is in it to win it
"Spain is taking this seriously because it's another chance to prove itself, but also, for Spain this is a novelty," Sid Lowe, Madrid-based soccer correspondent for The Guardian, told CBCSports.ca.
"For a country like Italy or Brazil or Germany, the Confederations Cup elicits nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders, but for Spain, to be invited as the reigning European champions, is proof that they're A-list."
Even in a soccer-mad country such as Spain, the Confederations Cup has never really registered with the average fan. However, this year's tournament is different, if for no other reason than it gives Spanish fans the chance to see its national team, in all its glory and style, play in a competitive tournament ahead of next year's World Cup.
"There is a certain degree of excitement, in so much as Spain being European champions, there's excitement every time they play. There's this sense of 'Wow, we're going to see our team again, a team that we can all get behind,'" Lowe said.
It's hardly a surprise that Spanish fans are anxious to watch their conquering heroes every chance they can get after enduring heartbreak and disappointment year after year.
Prior to Euro 2008, Spain's record of underachievement was legendary: It qualified for 12 World Cups but managed to advance beyond the quarter-finals only once, in 1950. 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 put to rest claims they couldn't win the big one thanks to a stunning performance at Euro 2008 when it so completely dominated the field and awed opponents with their attacking style.
Spain's victory proved that their eye-catching brand of "champagne football," forever slammed as being too pretty and lacking a cutting edge, can also be effective.
The Spanish national team hasn't looked back and has been brimming with confidence ever since, firmly establishing itself as the best side in the world.
Brimming with confidence
"There's a real confidence about them and a real self belief," Lowe explained. "The Euro success has given them confidence … and [given them] an absolute clarity of their [soccer] identity.
"There's the feeling of 'we have to stick to what we know because we know what we do works.' That was never there before. For the first time, they believe the aesthetic is also effective."
Spain's remarkable ascent can also be attributed to the fact that it boasts a team packed with young, world-class stars who are reaching the peak of their respective careers at the same time.
"This is an extraordinarily talented generation of players — far more talented than what's come before — and I think that's been one of the key factors," Lowe said.