MADRID, June 5 (Reuters) - Spain shook off the tag of inveterate also-rans to triumph at Euro 2008 and winning a first World Cup two years later secured them undisputed status as the team to beat in international soccer.
However they will have to re-write soccer’s record books if they are to keep their European title in Poland and Ukraine this summer. No country has ever retained the Henri Delauney trophy and no country, on any continent, has won three major tournaments in a row.
The Iberian nation used to be haunted by the “curse of the quarters” - at the European Championships of 1996 and 2000 and at the World Cups of 1994 and 2002 the last eight had proved a bitter stumbling block.
Fans feared the worst at Euro 2008 when then-world champions Italy battled to a 0-0 draw to force a quarter-final penalty shootout but that was when Spain’s luck changed and Iker Casillas’s saves sent them through.
Released from their jinx and flush with self-belief they swept on to the title and followed up their success in Austria and Switzerland with a less spectacular, but equally efficient, performance to win the World Cup in South Africa.
Under coach Vicente del Bosque, they continue to win plaudits for their slick possession play, attacking flair and solid defence and are firm favourites to become the first nation to win back-to-back continental titles with a World Cup in between.
“Of course we are favourites due to the fact that we are the reigning European and world champions and it seems that is something we can’t shake off,” a smiling Del Bosque said in an interview with Reuters in March.
“But Netherlands and Germany, who were second and third in the World Cup, are also clear favourites, all the more so because of their impeccable Euro 2012 qualifying runs,” the former Real Madrid coach and player added.
”Then you have England, Italy, France, Portugal, they all have excellent players.
“And in these relatively short championships it can happen that any country comes into form and wins it, as happened with Greece in Portugal in 2004.”
Del Bosque succeeded Luis Aragones after Euro 2008 and has kept the core of the team intact while making minor adjustments to a well organised and confident side who won all eight matches in Euro 2012 qualifying. They had also won all 10 qualifiers in the build-up to the World Cup. One major setback for the former Real Madrid coach is the loss of Spain’s record scorer David Villa after the Barcelona striker failed to recover in time from a broken leg sustained in December.
Spain would not have won Euro 2008 or the 2010 World Cup without Villa’s goals - he has 51 in 82 appearances - and his absence in Poland and Ukraine is a significant blow.
Carles Puyol’s knee problem, which has ruled out the talismanic defender, is another untimely misfortune and it will be up to Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique to hold the line in central defence.
Del Bosque has included striker Fernando Torres in the squad despite his staggering loss of form since he joined Chelsea from Liverpool just over a year ago.
The 28-year-old, who became a national hero when he netted the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final against Germany, appears to be on his way back to something like his old self, scoring against South Korea in a friendly last month, and in Villa’s absence has a good chance of starting against Italy in Gdansk on June 10.
Athletic Bilbao’s towering striker Fernando Llorente and Sevilla’s bull-like forward Alvaro Negredo are Del Bosque’s other options up front and he has also experimented with a team that does not include a traditional central striker.
With exceptional midfielders like Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Xavi on his roster, who all have a keen eye for goal, Del Bosque may go for a 4-2-4 formation, with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in the holding midfield roles.
“We have had almost four years now with a stable national team, a national team that has not suffered major changes,” Del Bosque told Reuters.
“Yes we have quality, yes we have the right playing system and yes we have the passion necessary to compete.” (Editing by Mitch Phillips)