by Trevor Whenham
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You almost have to feel sorry for Spanish soccer fans. Ever since 1964, when Spain won the European Championships, this team has followed the same frustrating pattern. It goes into a major tournament as a well-regarded favorite, owing to its skill and depth, only to go home well before it should. Spain has never bested its 4th place showing at the 1950 World Cup, despite qualifying 10 times since. It's like the boy who cried wolf. Every tournament we hear how Spain is talented, dangerous and a threat to win it all, and we see the impressive team they have on paper, so we get excited. Then it flops and we end up disappointed, though not surprised. With that being said, it should come as no surprise at all that Spain is coming into this tournament portrayed as a virtual lock to win Group H and with the potential to go deep.
The last two major tournaments are perfect examples of how the team operates. At the 2002 World Cup it needed penalty shots to get past the far less talented Irish side in the round of 16. It followed that up by losing to a South Korean team that, though a nice feel good story, shouldn't even have been on the field with Spain, never mind beating them. That disappointing showing was a huge success compared to Euro 2004. Many members of the European soccer media had virtually given Spain the title before the tournament started. True to form, it didn't even make it through the first round, falling behind Portugal and Greece, who came into the tournament as high as 150-1.
Fans looking for something to change this time around can say that at least the qualification process this year was different than normal, though not necessarily in a good way. Most years, the team rolls through its group with little problem, raising the expectations for fans and media. This year it needed a playoff against Slovakia to grab the second qualifying spot in its group behind Serbia and Montenegro. This could be positive in two ways. Now it has to play more meaningful games in qualification and also getting a scare may have it more prepared for the tournament than in past years. More significantly, the expectations from the press won't be as high this year. Perhaps the team has been handicapped by pressure in the past.
Spain World Cup 2006 Team odds: Bodog has Spain listed at 12-1 to win the 2006 World Cup, the 8th best odds among the 32 teams.
Strengths: Spain has a strong defensive unit, anchored by an embarrassment of riches at goalkeeper. Any of its three goalkeepers could play for most teams in the tournament, though Iker Casillas of Real Madrid is likely to get the starting nod. His backup will be Pepe Reina of Liverpool, the team that held its opponents scoreless for 12 consecutive games. Barring a major breakdown, and considering the strong defense in front of them, the team doesn't have to worry about giving up a lot of goals.
The midfield is also very strong. Two teammates at Liverpool, Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia are the anchors. Alonso is a stunningly good passer who is unafraid of the long shot. He has scored from his own half for Liverpool. Ruben Baraja of Valencia is good enough to have made the European Footballer of the Year short list. The biggest challenge faced by coach Luis Aragones is coming up with the right combination of players and finding enough playing time to keep all the stars in the midfield happy.
Two superstars man the striker position for Spain. Fernando 'El Nino' Torres is the young star with the magic touch. He is heavily courted by big club teams in Spain and elsewhere, yet he stills play for the same Atletico Madrid team he started with. The elder statesman is the great Raul Gonzalez of Real Madrid, who has 50 Champions League goals and 26 international strikes to his credit. Raul and Torres combined to score 10 of the 25 goals for Spain in qualification.
Weaknesses: The biggest concern for the team has to be Raul's knee. Besides being the driving force of the offense, Raul is also the spiritual leader of the team. He suffered cruciate ligament damage in November and his health is uncertain for the tournament. He has vowed to be back and healthy, but it is a long road. If he can't play, or if he isn't at his best, Spain will be in trouble.
Beyond Raul, the performance of the strikers has to be a concern. Though the team did score 25 goals in qualifying, 6 came in the playoff against Slovakia. It played to 5 draws, many of which saw the strikers missing prime opportunities. Simply put, the team must score to avoid going home early again. The 6 goals against Slovakia and 3 more in a friendly against World Cup qualifier Ivory Coast in March, though, give hope that the forward troops have again found the route to the net.
Spain World Cup 2006 Outlook: On paper there are few glaring weaknesses. The team is superb in the back end, very solid at midfield and more than competent up front. It isn't the best team at the tournament, but it's definitely among the elite. It should win Group H easily and be favored against many of the teams it might face in later rounds. A deep run in this tournament would not be a surprise, nor would the team have to overachieve to do so. Its biggest single challenge, at least early on, is overcoming the funk that has washed over Spanish soccer for generations at major tournaments. If they don't crumble under the pressure of the situation they will do well. If the team instead follows in the recent Spanish tradition, it will suffer a mystifying loss against an inferior opponent.
Spain World Cup 2006 First Round Schedule (all times local):
Wednesday, June 14, Group H1 Spain vs. Group H2 Ukraine, in Leipzig, 3 p.m.
Monday, June 19, Group H1 Spain vs. Group H3 Tunisia, in Stuttgart, 9 p.m.
Friday, June 23, Group H4 Saudi Arabia vs. Group H1 Spain, in Kaiserslautern, 4 p.m.
Updated Spain World Cup 2006 News: