Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Spain impress, but haven't we been here before?

    After cutting a pretty unstoppable swathe through Group H, Spain now find themselves in their traditional position as the dark horses of the draw in the second round. Thrashing World Cup debutants the Ukraine, not panicking to overcome Tunisia and using the reserves to beat Saudi Arabia, the Spanish have won all three games and played good football along the way. Players are in good form, hope is abundant in the camp and people are starting to whisper that this could be their year.

    This is classic Spain, and I think we all know what follows. As sure as night follows day Spain will implode at some point in the next week, and their tournament will be over. It ALWAYS happens. The quarter-final is the usual point of no return for them in their agonising World Cup history. They can never advance beyond it, and it has become to them what penalties are to the English, Italians and Dutch. In 1950 Spain did finish fourth, although this is somewhat misleading. In that thirteen team tournament in Brazil held in the aftermath of World War Two the group winners advanced into a final group stage of four teams, where Spain failed to win a match.

    Their textbook formula of being one of the favourites and then never making the semi-finals begins in earnest in 1982. As hosts, it could all have been so beautiful. Three of the previous four World Cups had been won by the home team, and Spain wanted in on the action. A dolly of a draw was arranged to make this possible, although there were concerns about the focus of the players, who had spent the months previously chasing endorsements with a vigour that would shame even today’s crop of superstar players.

    The concerns were justified. Spain drew with Honduras and lost to Northern Ireland in the opening round, and survived only on goal difference to make the second stage. Because of these poor results instead of playing against Austria and France they faced West Germany and England, and were removed with ease. That damp squib has set the tenor for everything since – dumped out in the quarters on penalties after dominating Belgium in 1986, undone by Stojkovic of Yugoslavia in extra-time in 1990 and embarrassingly knocked out in the first round in 1998, a litany of failures.

    Two quarter-final defeats have been particularly harsh. In 1994 the best Spanish team I have seen at a World Cup finals lost controversially to Italy in Boston. Roberto Baggio’s brilliance won the game right at the end but Spain were left seething after a blatant elbow on Luis Enrique was not given the penalty and red card the situation deserved. In 2002 another pretty good Spanish team lost infamously on penalties to the hosts South Korea after having two legitimate goals disallowed in normal time.

    Despite these perceived injustices, it needn’t have been that way. Julio Salinas missed a sitter that could have won the game in 1994 and Spain frankly are no good at penalty shoot-outs, which they can’t really pin on anyone but themselves. It almost seems like they’re doomed to fall short. This year the mantra is the same, having coasted through the group phase they are yet again touted as one of the favourites.

    To get the monkey off their back about failing to make it beyond the last eight they must first negotiate their second round meeting with France in Hanover on Tuesday. This is a tricky looking fixture and, along with Portugal versus Holland, the most evenly balanced in the second round. Where Spain have excelled France have struggled so far, but will have Zidane back should the coach wish to use him. It was Zidane who settled the last high profile meeting between these two nations in the Euro 2000 quarter-final with a scorching free-kick in a match Spain could and perhaps should have won. This will be the first meeting between the two sides in the World Cup.

    Spain however will rightly be the favourites. The balance of their team is excellent – Casillas is a top quality goalkeeper, Puyol marshals the defence superbly, the creative options in midfield are overwhelming with Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Senna and Albelda all competing for places and in attack Fernando Torres and David Villa are well supplemented by the likes of Reyes, Joaquin and Luis Garcia. On paper and in practice this is one of the strongest squads at the finals. Whatever you may think of Luis Aragones (and my opinion of him his lower than a limbo dancing ant) he has assembled a formidable unit.

    Before we get too carried away with Spanish prospects a quick glance on the horizon does reveal a problem. Should they get by France, which is by no means certain, they will face the familiar sticking point of the quarter-finals, where the opposition in Frankfurt is likely to be Brazil. Not only will they have to overcome the curse of the last eight but the tournament favourites to boot. Brazil’s collection of superstars should not hold any fears for the Spanish team, who come across Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, and Robinho on a weekly basis in La Liga. But if Brazil get by Ghana to face them (and this World Cup is going ruthlessly to the form book so far) they could represent the insurmountable.

    Whereas Brazil play like the collection of multi-talented individuals that they are, Spain are far more of a team in the conventional sense and this could be the key. Only Argentina and to a lesser extent Italy so far have demonstrated a similar ethic, and as with Spain when that is combined with technically gifted players right through the team it can be a pretty potent combination. Germany are a raw attacking team that look susceptible at the back, France and England are full of players of world renown that are struggling for form and grinding out results. Portugal and Holland have shown promise but are lightweight in attack and don’t appear to have the firepower to go all the way.

    So Spain are one of the form horses, and surely, surely, they must cash in on their huge potential before long. With a league that houses the two biggest clubs in the world and is home to the most exciting brand of football you will see anywhere, translating that into the international arena should have happened long ago. One European Championships won at home in 1964 with the competition in its infancy and another final appearance twenty years later is a poor return. The time is now for Spain. This really could be their year, and if they can’t do it now we should probably give up trying to work out this enigma of a football team once and for all.



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