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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Spanish fans expect team to reach World Cup quarterfinals, at least

Appearing in Brazil as defending champions, fans have little to worry about, although some have concerns about complacency for the successful team.
Local Spanish soccer fans  Nicholas Calonje, Carlos Sistiaga and Lucas Aylagas are all ready to cheer their side along. Satish Kumar / The National
Local Spanish soccer fans Nicholas Calonje, Carlos Sistiaga and Lucas Aylagas are all ready to cheer their side along. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // They are ranked the world’s best by FIFA, have won back-to-back European Championships and return to the World Cup as defending champions.

But these accolades may also be Spain’s downfall in Brazil, its most passionate fans concede.

“Spaniards are very proud, we expect a lot, but we understand as well that we are not going to win every tournament, it’s impossible,” said Lucas Aylagas, a 26-year-old Spaniard living in Dubai. “And, the problem is, most of the teams, they already know how Spain plays, so it’s going to be more difficult.”

It didn’t help that La Roja started the tournament right where they left off in 2010, facing off against the runners-up, Holland, now ranked No 15.

“The Netherlands, they want revenge,” said Carlos Sistiaga, a 25-year-old Spaniard living in Dubai. And they certainly got it when they slaughtered Spain 5-1 in their opening game. Getting past the group stage will not be easy for Spain, Mr Aylagas said.

“It’s a quite difficult group,” said Mr Aylagas. “Chile is also a very good team, a good defence. Of course, starting in a group like this is going to be very difficult for Spain. Australia is not so good, but the other two teams are very difficult,” he said.

For Mr Sistiaga, when it comes to Group B, Chile poses a big threat.

“For me, Chile is going to be tougher than the Netherlands,” he said of the No 14-ranked South Americans. “But also I think it’s not bad to start, like, playing against strong teams because from the beginning, you are really focused. You know that you can’t make a mistake.”

This is a lesson Spain learned the hard way.

In the last World Cup, “they started against Switzerland and we thought, of course, we are going to win this match, it will be easy”, Mr Sistiaga said. “And at the end, we have lost it. And maybe it was because we thought, ‘Oh, we won the European cup and we are the favourites against Switzerland and we will win’. And, of course, always the first match is important, but we have seen it is not essential. I feel confidence with my team and I have to trust them.”

The team also has to contend with older players, and must hope they are not mired in the complacency that often comes with being repeat champions.

“Of course, I have confidence in my team,” Mr Sistiaga said. “I mean, it’s not going to be a surprise if Spain wins again the World Cup, but I think the only thing is that we are thinking that we are not as well as four years ago.

“Overall because I think it’s not the same if you have never won a World Cup than if you have won once. Overall it’s the same players that have already won the World Cup. Maybe, we don’t know that they are going to be, like, so hungry to try to win again. But of course all of the Spanish people should trust our national team to prove that they are the best.”

Complacent or not, Spain is still a powerhouse and fans expect an appearance in the quarterfinals, at least.

“If we play half as good as we played last time, we’ll get there easy,” said Nicolas Calonje, 26, a Spaniard living in Dubai. “We’re Spain, everybody fears us.”

The UAE is home to a tightly-knit Spanish community of about 12,000 compatriots. They maintain their national ties through the Spanish Business Council which organizes social and networking events throughout the year. There is also a Facebook group called Españoles en Dubai to keep members connected. There is no official fan zone or gathering spot for Spaniards to cheer on their team. But one popular spot is the newly opened Real Madrid Cafe in JBR.

rpennington@thenational.ae