Since dropping their underachievers tag at Euro 2008, Spain go into the Confederations Cup and next summer's World Cup as favourites.
JOHANNESBURG // For Spain, this must be a curious feeling. For more than 40 years they turned up at tournaments with the reputation as underachievers - a fine squad who could be relied up to choke when the going got tough. This time, though, having at last fulfilled their potential, they arrived at the Confederations Cup as favourites, not merely for this tournament, but also for next summer's World Cup.
Brazil might dispute that judgement, but Spain's reputation is hard earned. They were significantly the best side at the European Championship, are 319 points clear at the top of the world rankings, and have yet to drop a point in World Cup qualifying. When they met the only other side with a 100 per cent record, England, in Seville in February, they outplayed them and won 2-0. Even without Andres Iniesta, who has been ruled with a thigh injury, they have a formidable midfield, the defensive resolve of Villarreal's Marcos Senna providing the ideal balance for the more creative skills of Xavi, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas.
Around the turn of the millennium there was a theory that midfielders would become increasingly muscular and powerful; by reinvigorating the classic tika-taka style Spain (and Barcelona) have proved that skill and imagination can still outstrip brute strength. Add Iker Casillas, still one of the top keepers in the world despite some recent wobbles, and a front two of Fernando Torres and David Villa, described by the New Zealand forward Chris Killen this week as "the best in the world", and it is hard to dispute their claim to favouritism.
The issue then is how that affects them. Frustrating as that chokers' tag was, it was also a get-out. If they failed, well, Spain always failed: history provided a useful excuse. Having won the European Championship, particularly having done so so convincingly, there is a different kind of pressure. "It's normal for us to be highly rated when people think about the World Cup as we are the European champions," said Torres. "Barcelona's Champions League victory is bound to raise expectations too and this is something we have to live with. Still, the World Cup is our biggest test. So many times in the past Spain have promised a lot, but failed to deliver. We showed what we are capable of last summer and I'm confident of more of the same next year.
"Not only do we have the talent, we love being together as a group and this unity can take us long, long way." They go into today's opener against New Zealand looking to stretch their unbeaten run to 33 matches. That in itself can become a burden - as for England in the build up to the 1990 World Cup, for instance - but Torres insists it is not a problem. "We're on a long, successful run at the moment and have standards to maintain," he said. "We've built up a tremendous amount of confidence and are a very proud set of players. The Confederations Cup would be nice but clearly the number one objective is to do well at the World Cup."
For every team, this tournament is about preparing for next summer; Spain's specific task is to cope with wearing the mantle of favourites. firstname.lastname@example.org