The topmost ranked country in world football, Spain, has come of age on the World stage after several decades of being the most underperforming team. They have a guardian angel to thank for it.
‘San’ (saint) Iker Casillas has been the country’s last line of defence for over a decade and he has also proved the team’s saviour, pulling out crucial saves at vital moments, which his team responds to scoring at the other end.
The 33-year-old Real Madrid and Spain captain commands total respect of the team (including the Barcelona players who obey him 100 per cent) and this has fostered a conquering team spirit and led him to become the most successful Spanish captain of all time, lifting three major titles in a row
This season has come with its troubles for San Iker at club level, having lost his imperial status between the sticks, but his worth has rarely diminished, and he led Los Merengues to UEFA the Champions league triumph, conceding just five goals in the process.
Adept at also keeping out penalties, Casillas is Spain’s most-capped player and he produced a majestic stop at Korea/Japan 2002, which has been rated as one of the top 10 saves of all time by FIFA.
Keeping clean sheets is his latest hubby, as he was only breached in the final of the Copa Del Rey. He has the record for most international clean sheets, with 74 clean sheets, and also set another record of 509 minutes without conceding a goal in EURO 2012. He weighed in with five clean sheets and a penalty save on the road to winning the last World Cup in 2010, conceding just twice.
With the assurance of Casillas between the sticks, the rest of the outfield players go about their business, marshalled by a strong midfield containing Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. Even the likes of tricky playmaker David Silva and Juan Mata are not assured of a starting berth; such is the array of ball-playing talent scattered in the team. Coupled with a defence confident on the ball, the Spanish national team is the most complete team you can find around.
Vincent Del Bosque has done a perfect replacement job since taking over from late legendary coach, Luis Aragones, who took the bull by the horn, leaving Raul out of the squad and winning Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. The 63-year-old former Champions league winning coach of Real Madrid has continued with the team’s ethos — a passing game which involves technically gifted players — no matter the opposition.
Although the world is now up-to-date on the style of play and the team is evolving also, they however saw their goals ratio drop in qualifiers, scoring just 14 goals. But they have San Iker to thank for conceding a miserly three goals — fewer than any other side in the European qualifying.
Brazil 2014 will be La Roja’s tenth consecutive world finals appearance, and 14th in all. Their best performance was in South Africa 2010 and, before that, Brazil 1950 where they placed fourth. Although they lost the Confederations Cup to Brazil last summer in the country, they will be hoping the World Cup in the South American nation favours them better, as they try to do the hardest thing in world football: retain the World Cup.
Spain’s main strength has always been the understanding and coordination among the team. Half of the team plays at Barcelona; and naturally, they get along well and know distinctly how the other players function. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Jordi Alba, Busquests all have been plying their trade for the Catalan giants. David Silva, Jesus Navas and Negredo also play together at Manchester City. Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa, Iker Cassilas, Xabi Alonso play for Real Madrid.
Who will lead the line? Luckless Torres? Half-fit Diego Costa? Out-of-form David Villa? Or none at all? This will be Spain’s main heartache at the World Cup; and if they don’t get it right up front, they should kiss the cup goodbye.
With the death of tiki-taka finally confirmed this season, Del Bosque and Spain will heed the warning to mix it and win, or play hard ball and get booted out in the cruellest of ways: a 1-0 loss or penalty heartache. Just like they did at the Euros, tip La Furia Roja for back-to-back triumphs, though.