In previous World Cups, the Spaniards’ reputation has followed them from tournament to tournament and from game to game. Unfortunately, their reputation has not been centered solely on the undoubtedly incredible talent that players like Raul possess. Instead it has concentrated on their alarming inability to perform on the World’s biggest stage. During their 10 previous World Cup campaigns they have never managed to make it past the quarterfinals, which they have only reached on three occasions. All this despite having some of the freshest and most inspirational football talent the world has ever seen. Could this finally be the year that Spain shrugs off the unwanted “under performers” label?
Many critics would argue that Spain’s biggest downfall has been their willingness to stick with the big name players despite their ineffectiveness when playing for the national side. Raul is, unfortunately, the biggest indicator of this very point. A player now into his third World Cup appearance he is supposed to be the leading light in the international front line yet he only has 4 World Cup goals to his name – hardly the figures of a prolific and deadly striker. To the coach’s credit, it must have still been a difficult decision to leave him on the bench for this game, only featuring when Spain had successfully wrapped the game up.
The FIFA World Cup 2006 qualifiers saw coach Luis Aragones swapping and changing his attacking line-up so often that nearly every game saw a unique team. The result was far from convincing with Spain losing out on the top qualifying spot to a hugely unfancied Serbia & Montenegro and only qualifying on the back of a play-off victory. During this time they won a far from impressive 5 of 10 matches scoring 19 goals. 11 of these goals came in the two matches against San Marino.
On paper, today’s opening match appeared to be the usual story with masses of potential in world-renowned youngsters like Fernando Torres ready to prove their worth. The whole world was waiting for the almost inevitable poor performance. They were facing the Ukraine who were taking part in their first ever World Cup game, but despite their lack of experience they have a potentially very strong team. It’s fair to say that much of the world was eagerly awaiting the appearance of Schevchenko who has recently completed a move to England’s Chelsea for more than Pounds 30million. Most of the world would have been sorely disappointed in his performance. It’s true that he struggled because of the lack of quality build up play from midfield but fellow Ukrainian Voronin looked by far the more eager of the two and was unlucky in many ways not to have got his name on the score sheet.
The first slice of Spanish luck came in the shape of Xabi Alonso’s possible header. Debate will still be raging as to whether the ball went in off the player’s head or his shoulder but regardless of the body part used, his goal stood and gave the Spaniards an early lead in the 12th minute. A further chunk of luck came their way less than five minutes later when a David Villa free kick took a fairly severe deflection off the wall effectively wrong footing Shovkovskiy. Two nil to Spain.
The first half continued in much the same way. Schevchenko was pulled up for being offside when clear on goal but replays show the decision was a poor one. However, it’s said that you make your own luck and if that’s the case then the Spanish midfield and strikers can take all the credit. Villa and, in particular, Torress constantly worried the Ukrainian defense. Torres’ turn of pace and insight regularly took him clear of the opposition and he was unlucky not to have had a scoring influence on the game by the time the break arrived.
The start of the second half was another case of a poor decision by the referee. The Ukrainian defender, Vashchuk was very harshly sent off despite barely even touching Torres in the box. On any other day with a good referee there would have been no penalty and certainly no sending off. David Villa stepped up to slot the penalty away giving him his second of the game and Spain an unassailable 3-0 lead.
Spain still didn’t take their foot off the pedal, though, and looked genuinely hungry and devastating all around the park. They passed the ball up and down the pitch and from side to side until Carlos Puyol started an incredible move from his own half. It was he who, later in the move, cushioned the ball down to the waiting Torres to bang home Spain’s fourth.
Watching this match it would be very easy to get carried away with Spain’s performance, and perhaps the injection of such talented youth will, finally, prove to be the pivotal factor for a nation that has never performed at its best. Certainly, they should now go on to win their group with comparative ease having decimated their biggest opposition in the group. There may have been a lot of luck and some absolutely appalling refereeing decisions to help them along the way but Spain were thoroughly deserving of the 3 points and have potentially been the best performing side of the tournament so far. Can it continue? The Spanish and the neutrals will certainly hope so.