However, South Africa 2010 promises to be a very different story.
Victory at Euro 2008 ended a 44-year wait for an international trophy and was followed by a World Cup qualifying campaign in which Vicente del Bosque's side won all 10 of their games, culminating in a 5-2 away victory over their nearest rivals Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Spain have won 45, and lost only one, of their last 48 games. A team at the peak of their powers, they underlined their status as World Cup favourites with an effortless 6-0 demolition of Poland in their final warm-up game on Tuesday.
So what is it about this Spanish team that makes them rise to the big occasion where their predecessors foundered? What factors can explain the seismic change that has taken place?
Many football observers suggest Spain's transformation from a perennial underachiever to a ruthless winning machine is largely explained by the emergence of a golden generation of players, drawn heavily from Barcelona's ranks.
As former Barca and England striker Gary Lineker asks: "How many sides could survive the loss of Fernando Torres? Only one: Spain. Because they have got David Villa.
"They've also got Cesc Fabregas, who could play behind the strikers and doesn't get a regular game because they've got Xavi and Andres Iniesta in midfield."
Others point to the strength of the Spanish domestic league, or argue that playing in the Premier League has given some of the squad members vital experience of a more physical kind of football.
But often overlooked are the seeds sown by the Spanish Football Federation over the last 15 years, which are now bearing fruit.
Pedro Calvo, who coached Liverpool striker Torres at the Atletico Madrid academy, believes Spain's current prowess owes much to the federation's long-term commitment to a nationwide programme for the training of coaches.
According to European football's governing body Uefa, Spain had almost 15,000 Uefa A and Pro Licence coaches in 2008 - more than double the number of any other European nation. And that is despite it taking 750 study hours to acquire a Pro Licence in Spain, compared with just 245 in England.
We have moved on from the time when nobody knew what the characteristics of Spanish football were. Now, it's good to say that Spanish football is here
"The federation has really focused on getting people qualified and to the level where they can go to other countries and coach," says Calvo. "It's not just in professional football, it runs right through the system. You have to have the same qualification to work in schools as you do to work in the top division.
"We are really starting to see the effects in the last few years."
Unlike the turbulent world of England's Football Association, Spain's FA is a model of stability, with president Angel Maria Villar about to begin his 23rd year at the helm.
Not only are there more qualified coaches in Spain than in England, they are all promoting exactly the same style of football - the highly technical, possession-based game that has taken Barcelona to the summit of European football, made Spain's youth teams the envy of the world and allowed the national side to end nearly half a century of failure in Vienna two years ago.
Indeed, the senior team's victory at Euro 2008 was not an isolated success. Since 1998, Spanish youth teams from under-16 to under-21 level have won 19 Uefa and Fifa championships. During this same period, England have won just one - the U17s European Championship last month when they beat Spain in the final.
UEFA A & PRO COACHES
SPAIN -------------------- 14,860
GERMANY ---------------- 6,570
FRANCE ------------------- 2,588
ITALY ----------------------- 1,810
NETH'NDS ----------------- 1,137
ENGLAND ----------------- 1,010
Former Spain and Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro, who was made the federation's technical director in 2007, said recently: "We have moved on from the time when nobody knew what the characteristics of Spanish football were.
"Before, we all knew about Italian football, English football, German, Argentine, Brazilian. Now, it's good to say that Spanish football is here."
The importance of the structures put in place by the Spanish federation was recognised in Uefa's technical review of Euro 2008, drawn up by a panel including Fulham manager Roy Hodgson and former Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier.
"For years, Spanish youth football has carried the same, recognisable hallmark," the report read. "And, after years of watering the roots, the plant has matured and blossomed."
International success has been matched by domestic triumphs, with Spain's top-flight La Liga surpassing Italy's Serie A and the Premier League to be rated by many as the world's strongest.
Barcelona are the reigning World Club champions, and the league's strength in depth is illustrated by the fact that Spanish teams have won the Uefa Cup/Europa League four times in the last seven seasons. Not one English, Italian or German side has claimed the trophy during that period.
But while the nucleus of Spain's team play their football at home, six members of Del Bosque's 23-man squad, including Fabregas, Torres and Pepe Reina, either play, or have played, in England.
Rodolfo Borrell, who coached Fabregas and Lionel Messi at the Barcelona academy before joining Liverpool's youth set-up in 2009, says the experience gained amid the rough and tumble of the Premier League has added crucial ingredients to the mix.
"Aggression, tackling, passion and heart are all a lot bigger in England than in Spain," he says. "The football is more competitive than other leagues. This is making our national team stronger."
If the Premier League has improved the physical strength of Spain's players, it is a new-found mental toughness that has allowed them to exorcise the ghosts of World Cups past, says Spanish football expert Phil Ball.
He believes previous Spanish squads were hampered by frailties rooted in the national psyche and bore mental scars from the 1982 tournament, when as host nation they won just once in five games, suffered a 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland, and crashed out in the second round.
"Little by little, Spain have shed the inferiority complex they have always had towards northern European sides," explains Ball, the author of 'Morbo: the History of Spanish Football'.
"Under (former Spanish dictator) Franco, Spain were seen as the poor man of Europe, a bit backward politically until the 1970s.
Shock defeat for Spain by NI in 1982
"When Spain opened up after the transition into democracy, it got a World Cup in 1982 and made a fool of itself. It had that chance to show the world that it wasn't inferior and it mucked it up."
Ball, who has lived and worked in the northern city of San Sebastian for 20 years, says Spain's footballers may have been inspired by national success stories in other sports.
"You've got the likes of Fernando Alonso in Formula 1 and Rafael Nadal in tennis. People are seeing these Spaniards going out and doing the business. They've got that tough winning mentality."
According to Calvo, much of the credit for Spain's psychological transformation must go to Luis Aragones, the outspoken coach who led them to Euro 2008 glory before making way for former Real Madrid manager Del Bosque.
"Before, we were a good team, we would always cruise through the group stages, but when we got to the important stages, like the quarter-finals, we seemed to have a breakdown, we didn't believe that we could do it," he says. "Aragones made them believe. He knew how to prepare them for the really big games."
Among many who are tipping Spain to win the World Cup is Lineker.
The BBC frontman, who was England's top scorer at the 1986 and 1990 tournaments, says the Spanish now boast a depth of talent that makes them the envy of most other sides at this year's event.
"There is quality right the way through their squad - they have even got the best group of goalkeepers in world football and most of the best players in the world," he said. "They will take some beating in South Africa."
Yet for those who wonder how Spain finally changed from wobblers into winners, the message is clear: the glory has been a long time in the making.
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