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Can Spain win Euro 2008?

Spain
Clockwise from bottom left: Raul and Emilio Butragueno failed with Spain; winning the Euros in 1964; Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres gun for glory

By Jonathan Stevenson

It is June, and we are in a major football tournament, which means that some time in the next month, the fabulously-gifted players of Spain will crash out and fly home prematurely.

It has happened with such alarming regularity it appears as though Spain's biennial humiliation is written in the stars.

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport blogger Fletch
Always among the favourites, they have a nasty habit of producing one decent performance before bowing out to a team half as talented - not a million miles away from the same fate suffered by England every other year.

Only Spain will be in Austria and Switzerland this summer and, once again, they are being heavily tipped, with most bookmakers running them as second favourites behind Germany.

So have Spain really underachieved as much as we are led to believe? Spanish football expert Guillem Balague thinks it is nothing more than a myth that they are world football's biggest flops.

"How many world-class players have Spain produced in, say, the last 20 years?" asks Balague.

At short notice, the first three names that pop into my head are Miguel Angel Nadal, Fernando Hierro and Raul.

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Archive: France 2-0 Spain - Euro 84

"Are those players you have just mentioned world-class players, or rather players who are known worldwide?" replies Balague.

"I don't think Spain have had that player to take them on to the next level for a long time, a player like Marco van Basten, or Zinedine Zidane - we have had famous players, but not world-class ones.

"Everywhere, especially in England, people have overestimated the value and quality of Spanish players, mainly because they can pass the ball and maybe do things the English guys cannot do as easily.

"But we are missing the mentality of the English, the commitment of the Germans and the know-how of the Italians. Also, we end up having this ideological debate in every tournament which confuses us sometimes, which the French don't get lumbered with."

The fact remains, however, that Spain's seemingly endless problems in major tournaments have become something of an embarrassment for one of football's proudest nations.

Like England, they have won one tournament. Their success - the 1964 European Nations' Cup, as the Euros were called then - came thanks to a 2-1 win over the Soviet Union in the final, which was held in Madrid.

WHAT THE SPAIN PLAYERS SAY
We want to live up to the prestige and pride of a whole nation

Defender Carlos Marchena
If not world-class, they have still produced some very fine players, the country's teams have consistently picked up European trophies and for some years their league has been arguably the most attractive to watch on the planet.

Which makes reaching only one final since 1964 - defeat to hosts France at the Euros in 1984 - all the more perplexing.

Add to that a paltry single appearance in the World Cup semi-finals (1950) and apart from 1964 and 1984, they have not reached the last four of the European Championship.

That is probably why 69-year-old coach Luis Aragones is doing his level best to play down talk of them going all the way this time around.

"We're not favourites," Aragones has said on more than one occasion. "Nobody should be deceived by Spain because in the major tournaments we haven't done anything."

Spain coach Luis Aragones
Can Aragones - the wise man of Hortaleza - silence his many critics?

So why, then, is there a genuine feeling that at Euro 2008, La Furia Roja will finally cast aside their tag of "chokers" and stamp their mark on a major competition for the first time in 24 years?

Spain have always had quality players, but perhaps not quite so many as they have in their 23-man squad for Austria and Switzerland, as BBC presenter and former Barcelona striker Gary Lineker testifies.

"It has slightly let them down in the past, but Spain have never had the strength in depth they have this year," Lineker told BBC Sport. "They also have the experience of players going abroad that they never had before, too.

"Over in Spain they think they choke. They've done well in sports like golf and motor racing where they've shown they have the bottle.

"But they've got a real chance this year. The spine of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Fernando Torres and David Villa is very, very strong."

WHAT THE SPAIN PLAYERS SAY
We don't have a reason to declare ourselves favourites - other sides have shown themselves to be more effective

Midfielder Xabi Alonso
BBC Sport pundit Mark Lawrenson also thinks the number of Spanish players playing abroad will benefit the team. There are five players in the squad plying their trade in the Premier League.

"You get to sample another way of life, another culture," he says. "The whole experience makes you a more well-rounded person and it helps in international football because you learn a different way of playing."

One thing this Spanish side has in its favour is that plenty of them are used to winning things, too. Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta have all won the Champions League and they have numerous league and cup titles between them.

Possible Spain team for Euro 2008
Is this the team that will win the European Championship for Spain?
And there is a string of players who have also been successful with Spain's youth teams.

It would seem they have brought this success to the full national side now, with Spain on a run of 15 games without defeat, including victories over Argentina, France and World Cup holders Italy.

Aragones, having tinkered with his formation and his favoured starting side for much of his reign, now appears to have settled on a formula he believes can end their 44 years of hurt in Austria and Switzerland.

But Balague thinks the system Aragones has stumbled upon could prove to be the team's undoing.

"It is a problem that the way they are going to play will not help two of their most important players, namely Fabregas and Torres," said Balague.

"For Cesc to become the Cesc of Arsenal he needs to start deeper, but he can't for Spain because Xavi takes up that position. So Cesc finds himself between Xavi and Torres and playing with his back to goal a lot - not normally the kind of football he plays.

WHAT THE SPAIN PLAYERS SAY
It could happen. We have the players to create history for Spain

Striker Fernando Torres
"It's such a passing midfield, they all want the ball to feet and so Torres, the lone striker, will have to do lots of running and will see less of the ball than he does at Liverpool.

"This is why Aragones is trying to instil in them the mentality of playing a little more directly and using Torres' pace, because that is how you hurt teams."

Spain's major problem it seems, much like Arsenal in recent times, could be their eagerness to pass the opposition into submission.

If it comes off for Spain, however, it would be a fillip for attractive football. And after Greece's triumph four years ago - a victory for football by numbers - you could argue it is exactly what the competition needs most.

There are enough reasons to believe that Spain can succeed at the European Championship, not least the history of the competition that has delivered plenty of surprise winners.

Yet Aragones has suggested Euro 2008 could be good preparation for his young squad's crack at winning the World Cup in two years' time.

606: DEBATE

Balague agrees. "I don't think Spain can win Euro 2008. A good tournament would be reaching the last four because it's a young group and that would show good progression.

"We need to get a semi-finals under our belt to make us start to believe we can win something."

Settling for the semis is all well and good, but Spain are carrying more than the hopes of a nation at this summer's European Championship.

The future of beautiful football may just depend on them passing one of the sport's ultimate tests.


see also
Spain team guide
15 May 08 |  Spain
Pick your Spain XI
23 May 08 |  Spain
Aragones given vote of confidence
08 Oct 06 |  Internationals


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