x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Not-so-friendly neighbours meet again

Spain get a chance to show France that they are serious World Cup contenders when the two meet in a friendly in Paris tonight.

France's keeper Fabien Barthez rises above a crowd of players to clear the ball during the 2006 World Cup quarter-final between France and Spain in Hanover, Germany, which France won 3-1.
France's keeper Fabien Barthez rises above a crowd of players to clear the ball during the 2006 World Cup quarter-final between France and Spain in Hanover, Germany, which France won 3-1.

Spain are not very good at accepting elimination from World Cup finals gracefully. The national side, the top ranked country in world football, usually depart seething with outrage and conspiracy theories. Sometimes, as was the case in 2002 when a perfectly good goal was disallowed against South Korea, they are justified. On other occasions, they have appeared bad losers after being beaten by the better team.

Their 3-1 defeat to France in the quarter finals of 2006 may have been their first in 25 games, but it ended their interest in the competition they hoped to win for the first time. Spain played the better football and David Villa's strike was the goal of the game, but the French were more ruthless, direct and experienced in the nuances of international competition. Once again Spain were left smarting.

Tonight is time for a revenge of sorts, though an international friendly in Paris is not the must- win occasion of a World Cup quarter-final. "It might be a friendly but we can't wait to play against them," said Fernando Torres. "Especially after they knocked us out of the last World Cup. We always have it in for them." The Spanish are pleased that the Liverpool attacker appears to have overcome his injury worries.

The fortunes of the two neighbouring countries have contrasted since they last met. Spain's main issue is calming the high expectations which surround their squad ahead of South Africa. The reigning European champions won all 10 games in their qualifying group, playing the attractive passing and attacking football which has become the hallmark of Pep Guardiola's great Barcelona side. No fewer than six Barca players are in Vicente Del Bosque's 23-man squad and all are rightly confident. After decades of underachievement, Spain have finally realised their immense potential and are favourites to win the World Cup for the first time in Johannesburg in July.

Del Bosque, the former Real Madrid coach who took over from the triumphant Luis Aragones in 2008, has twice won the Champions League with Real in 2000 and 2002. He is trying to downplay Spain's chances, though that does not stop his peers, such as Raymond Domenech, the France coach, purring in appreciation and saying: "Spain are the favourites [for the World Cup] with Brazil. They have reached the highest level."

Many in France are surprised that Domenech has remained in charge of Les Bleus after an inglorious Euro 2008. His side only qualified for South Africa after a late run in the group stage saw them face the Republic of Ireland in a play-off game. Thierry Henry's handball goal was the difference between the two sides. It understandably outrages the Irish and has tainted the image of one of the finest footballers of his generation.

The French public have long been circumspect and have frequently booed their side, but Patrice Evra wants his compatriots to forget. "Talking about it again is like going back into the past, whereas I prefer to focus on the future," the defender said of the Henry incident. "At the moment I'm simply looking forward to the World Cup, with the aim of going there and winning it. It's true that we qualified by the back door, but what matters is being there, not the path you took.

"It was particularly important to me to be involved, because I'm of African origin and I know how much support France have on the continent. So it should also make all Africans very happy to see us at this World Cup." France hope that their divisions will be healed by June. They can start with a convincing performance against the team from the other side of the Pyrenees tonight. sports@thenational.ae

France v Spain, midnight, Aljazeera Sport + 4