With five days to go until the World Cup kicks off, we interview four of the men expected to shine. Today Andy Mitten speaks to David Villa.
Fortune favours the brave
BARCELONA // Spain, the reigning European champions blessed with an abundance of world-class talent, go into the World Cup finals as favourites. After decades of under achievement, La Roja finally have the confidence to beat the best. They won all 10 of their qualifying games, with David Villa the leading goalscorer, scoring seven times. Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the midfield schemers, are arguably the best in the world, while the front pairing of Fernando Torres and Villa are feared by every defence in the world.
"Torres and I get on well on and off the pitch," says Villa, "we have a very good partnership." Villa finished as the tournament's top scorer when Spain won Euro 2008 with victory over Germany and, buoyed by his recent move to Barcelona, he is fancied to top the scoring charts in South Africa. "Individuals awards are fine," he said, "but football is a team game. Without my teammates, I am nothing. Winning in Vienna [Euro 2008] was the highlight of my career. We want more of the same and we think we are good enough. I like the way the Spain team plays, it's like Barcelona and Valencia, attacking football from the start."
Villa is already Spain's second highest scorer ever with 36 goals from 55 matches, eight short of the record held by Raul - the man he pushed out of the national team. Villa has also scored 20 or more goals a season in club football in eight of the last nine seasons, showing the consistency which led Barca to pay his former club Valencia ?40 million (Dh184m) for his signature last month. "I've always liked Barca's style," said Villa long before he signed and was unveiled in front of 30,000 fans at Camp Nou. "It's a joy to play with their little guys [Iniesta and Xavi] in the national team and they play the best football around. They give me the freedom to move and seek goals."
He will line up with the pair, as well as Lionel Messi, next season at the Primera Liga champions, a prospect which leaves Catalans salivating and Madrilenos (Real Madrid supporters) biting what is left of their nails. Villa was born in a mining town in Asturias in Spain's green north in 1981. Fiercely proud of his background, he still wears the flag of the region on his boots alongside the national flag and the names of his two daughters, Zaida and Olalla. Villa played in junior teams at local third division side Union Popular de Langreo, where he picked up his nickname El Guaje - 'the kid' in the local dialect.
He was fortunate to get to that level. Aged four, Villa broke his right leg and doctors wanted to operate, but they warned his father Jose Manuel, "Mel", and mother Dorita that there might be long-term consequences. The operation never happened and his leg healed naturally - not that having one leg in plaster prevented him from playing football. "My dad would throw the ball to me over and over again, making me kick the ball with my left foot," recalls Villa.
Villa cites his father as the most important influence in his career, saying: "He was at every training session and I was never alone." He considered quitting football when he was 14 after a row with a coach, but he persevered through the ups and downs. Real Oviedo, his local Primera Liga side, rejected Villa on the grounds of him being too small, but second division rivals Sporting Gijon incorporated him into their B team when he was 17. By playing for Sporting, he was following in the footsteps of Quini, his childhood hero and the winner of seven Pichichi top goalcorers' awards, five of them in the Primera Liga.
Villa scored 13 goals in his debut season and was awarded a first-team debut aged 19 in 2002/03, quickly becoming a fan favourite among Sporting's passionate followers. He proved a prolific striker, netting 18 goals in his first season in Spain's second division and 20 in his second. Such form led to Real Zaragoza paying ?3m for his signature in 2003. The step up to Spain's top level did not phase Villa; he racked up 39 goals in two seasons for a struggling side.
A move to Valencia came next in 2005 after Los Che paid Zaragoza ?12m. Villa kept scoring, 25 goals in his first season at the Mestalla, finishing second to Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o in the scorers' chart. International recognition followed in 2005, and he scored three goals in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, including two against Ukraine on his World Cup debut, though he was still playing second fiddle to Raul and coming off the bench more than he started.
By 2008, Villa was a first-choice pairing with Torres as Spain triumphed in Vienna. That year, he broke a national team record by bagging 12 goals in a calendar year and scored in six successive games - another Spain record. Villa is not allowing Spain's status as favourites to make him complacent. "It would be a serious mistake if we thought like that," he says. "We need to believe that every team which has been good enough to reach South Africa could cause us problems. Think that any game is easy and things start to become complicated. We have to continue as we have been. If we do that then I think we can reach the final. "Our philosophy is that we must try and have the ball all of the time. This is the first commandment for Spain. The second is to move the ball quickly, to get ahead of your marker, to try and make the other team tire because of all the running behind the ball, not just with the ball."
He sees Chile as the danger team in Spain's group which also includes Switzerland and Honduras: "They are the one team which we have played against and I think they are very compact, very competitive. We want to win the competition. We hope that Vienna was not our last triumph. The players' faces light up when we talk about South Africa, that's how much we are looking forward to going. "Our results in the past three years have made us favourites, but we try not to pay too much attention to what people think of us. We take it as a compliment that people consider us favourites, but that's it, because at the end of the day it's all football isn't it? Every team uses its own weapons."
Villa cites Spain's "defined style" as their strength. "It comes as a consequence, mainly, of the players in midfield," he explains. "Xavi and Iniesta are among the best five players in the world. "We have a great generation of footballers with fantastic touch and I can see why teams want to beat us. I'd also say this: our experience makes us better than we were two years ago. And we enjoyed Vienna so we want to keep on winning for years to come." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org