Madrid. Spain has established themselves as the team to beat in international football, after winning the Euro 2008, and their first World Cup two years later.
But Spain will have to re-write the sports record books if they are to keep their European title in Poland and Ukraine this summer. No country has ever retained the Henri Delauney trophy and no country, on any continent, has won three major tournaments in a row.
The Iberian nation used to be haunted by the â€ścurse of the quartersâ€ť â€” at the European Championships of 1996 and 2000 and at the World Cups of 1994 and 2002 the last eight had proved a bitter stumbling block.
Fans feared the worst at Euro 2008 when then-world champions Italy battled to a 0-0 draw to force a quarter-final penalty shootout, but that was when Spainâ€™s luck changed and Iker Casillasâ€™s saves sent them through. Released from their jinx and flush with self-belief, they swept on to the title and followed up their success in Austria and Switzerland with a less spectacular, but equally efficient, performance to win the World Cup in South Africa.
Under coach Vicente del Bosque, they continue to win plaudits for their slick possession play, attacking flair and solid defence and are firm favorites to become the first nation to win back-to-back continental titles with a World Cup in between.
â€śOf course we are favorites due to the fact that we are the reigning European and world champions and it seems that is something we canâ€™t shake off,â€ť a smiling Del Bosque said in an interview with Reuters in March.
â€śBut Netherlands and Germany, who were second and third in the World Cup, are also clear favorites, all the more so because of their impeccable Euro 2012 qualifying runs,â€ť the former Real Madrid coach and player added. â€śThen you have England, Italy, France, Portugal, they all have excellent players. â€śAnd in these relatively short championships it can happen that any country comes into form and wins it, as happened with Greece in Portugal in 2004.â€ť
Del Bosque succeeded Luis Aragones after Euro 2008 and has kept the core of the team intact while making minor adjustments to a well organized and confident side who won all eight matches in Euro 2012 qualifying. They had also won all 10 qualifiers in the build-up to the World Cup. One major dilemma for the former Real Madrid coach is whether to include Spainâ€™s record scorer David Villa in the squad even if the Barcelona striker recovers in time from a broken leg sustained in December.
Spain would not have won Euro 2008 or the 2010 World Cup without Villaâ€™s goalsâ€”he has 51 in 82 appearances â€” and his absence in Poland and Ukraine or a below-par performance due to a lack of match fitness would be significant setbacks. Another headache for the coach is the staggering loss of form suffered by Fernando Torres since he joined Chelsea from Liverpool just over a year ago.
Del Bosque will have to decide whether he is ruthless enough to leave out the man who became a national hero when he netted the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final against Germany. However, in recent weeks, with a change of coach at Chelsea, he has started to find the net again and his solo goal against Barcelona at the Nou Camp sealed Chelseaâ€™s place in the Champions League final.
Valenciaâ€™s tenacious captain Roberto Soldado, Athletic Bilbaoâ€™s towering striker Fernando Llorente and Sevillaâ€™s bull-like forward Alvaro Negredo are some of Del Bosqueâ€™s other options up front and he has also experimented with a team that does not include a traditional central striker.
With exceptional midfielders like Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Xavi on his roster, who all have a keen eye for goal, Del Bosque may go for a 4-2-4 formation, with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in the holding midfield roles. â€śWe have almost four years now with a stable national team, a national team that has not suffered major changes,â€ť Del Bosque told Reuters. â€śYes we have quality, yes we have the right playing system and yes we have the passion necessary to compete,â€ť he added.