uefa.com's Paddy Agnew speaks to Spanish star Gaizka Mendieta
Few players are looking forward to the FIFA World Cup finals this summer quite as eagerly as Spanish midfield player Gaizka Mendieta. The 27-year-old has endured a nightmare season with Serie A side S.S Lazio, who he joined last summer in a €45.5 million move from Valencia CF.
Something to shout about
After a season of frustration spent largely on the bench, Mendieta could have been forgiven for shouting from the rooftops when the Spanish national coach José Antonio Camacho this week included him in his list of 18 players who are certain to be in his squad to go to Korea/Japan. However, Mendieta is more the quietly spoken type, and speaking to uefa.com after a recent Lazio training session, he was just hoping to get his World Cup chance.
Disappointment in Rome
Mendieta believes that his disappointing season in Rome will not affect his form for Spain. He says: "When you come into a World Cup after the sort of season that I've had here, then it represents a terrific opportunity to show what you can do. It's not always easy to step into the national team if you're not having a good run, but I'll give it a try."
After the goal rush
Mendieta scored five goals to help Spain cruise through their qualifying group, showing the sort of form that saw him voted the best midfield player in the UEFA Champions League last season and into the official EURO 2000™ team of the tournament. He hopes to be among the goals again this summer. "Well I can score a lot more easily with Spain than with Lazio, that's for sure," he jokes. "Seriously, though, when I was at Valencia, I scored a fair bit, too."
The general consensus is that Mendieta and Spain have got off quite lightly with a World Cup group that puts them up against Slovenia, Paraguay and South Africa. However, Mendieta is too experienced to underestimate his opponents. "Remember that we played against Slovenia at EURO 2000™ and we beat them 2-1 in Amsterdam," he says. "They are a bit unusual - they tend to rely more on one or two quality individuals rather than on overall teamwork. As for Paraguay, here again we know them a bit because we played against them in the 1998 World Cup, drawing 0-0. They're tough - it won't be an easy game. That applies to South Africa, too. Even if things did not go too well for them at the recent African Cup of Nations, they are still a side that will be difficult to deal with, if only because they look physically very strong."
But Mendieta concedes that Spain are the overwhelming group favourites. "Clearly, we're the favourites in the group but if you look at our recent experience in World Cup finals being a favourite to come out of the first round doesn't always mean much," he says, doubtless remembering that Spain were eliminated in their first round group at the 1998 World Cup. "The important thing for us is to be in good shape and not to be taken by surprise. Obviously, both psychologically and from the viewpoint of progressing in the tournament, it is vitally important to get off to a good start. At EURO 2000™, for example, we lost the first game 1-0 against Norway and we were always struggling from that point on, trying to recover lost ground."
That sort of performance anxiety has long afflicted Spain, who have consistently underperformed in final tournaments. "It's true that this has happened but it's hard to come up with one clear and definitive explanation as to why," he says. "You would have to look at a lot of different factors. What is true is that looking at the quality of Spanish sides past and present you would have to say we have not played as well as we could with the exception perhaps of EURO 2000™ where we went out but only after a great battle with the reigning world champions"
The success of Spanish clubs in the UEFA Champions League has heightened expectations. "You're always under pressure from the fans and the media when playing for the Spanish team," admits Mendieta. "That is just logical if you look at the quality of Spanish football. People expect us to get to the semi-finals or the final of a World Cup or a UEFA European Championship, but experienced players like us should know how to handle that pressure."
'Above all, luck'
After an ill-starred season, Mendieta is hoping for some fortune in the finals. "Looking at the quality of our individual players and at the overall functioning of the team, you'd have to say that we could go very far at the finals," he says. "However, a World Cup is a World Cup and it is always difficult - there are so many circumstances that can go against you. You need your best players to remain injury-free, you need them to be in form for the month of the finals and, of course, you need luck on your side - above all, luck."
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