No one turns triumph into tragedy with the verve of the Spanish football side, but after years of disappointment, coach José Antonio Camacho may have found the right formula for success.
It is a fact so well known that it has become a cliché - Spain are the ultimate underachievers of world football. Despite producing some of the most exciting players in history, their only major honour so far has been the 1964 UEFA European Nations' Cup - the precursor to the modern UEFA European Championship. The years since 1998 have seen them further hone their unique gift for underachievement, but with a new generation of players and a renewed sense of belief, many think that the time may finally have come for the Spanish national side.
World Cup misery
The 1998 FIFA World Cup finals in France saw Spain at their underachieving best. Widely tipped as potential champions under coach Javier Clemente, they only found their feet once they were effectively out of the tournament. Nigeria had been cited as potentially the first African winners of the World Cup but they shocked the world by beating Spain 3-2 in their first Group D game. Clemente's side were so stunned by that defeat that they could barely raise themselves for their next game - a 0-0 draw with unfancied Paraguay which left them depending on Nigeria beating Paraguay to have any hope of reaching the next stage of the competition. The South American side duly surprised everyone by beating Nigeria 3-1 and Spain were left to take their frustration out on poor Bulgaria who they mauled 6-1 in Lens with two goals each from Fernando Morientes and Kiko.
Disaster in Larnaca
Clemente took some of the blame for his team's bout of stage-fright in France but it was not until the beginning of Spain's campaign for EURO 2000™ that the knives really came out for him. Drawn against Israel, Cyprus, Austria and San Marino in Group Six, no one expected Spain to drop a point. They duly obliged their doubters by losing their first game 3-2 against the part-timers of Cyprus in Larnaca prompting the coach to make a sharp exit claiming it was "for the good of the players and Spanish football".
Spain destroy all comers
Perhaps he was right to stand down, because after a tricky start in Tel-Aviv which saw Spain come from behind to beat Israel 2-1, new coach Camacho's side went on to annihilate all of their Group Six opponents. They beat Austria 9-0 in Valencia in their following game - "Austria are not a bad team. What happened is that we overwhelmed them," crowed Camacho - and followed up with a 6-0 win away at San Marino and another 9-0 win in the return leg. A 3-1 win in Austria followed before Spain avenged their defeat in Larnaca by thrashing Cyprus 8-0 in Badajoz before calmly dispatching Israel 3-0 in their final group game. All of a sudden they were the team that nobody wanted to play.
Stutters at EURO 2000™
However, they ran out of steam by the time they reached the finals in Belgium and Holland. They lost their first game 1-0 to Norway and had to overcome stern resistance to beat tournament newcomers Slovenia 2-1 in their second group game. In the end it took two goals in injury time from Gaizka Mendieta and Alfonso Pérez to see them through their group with an incredible 4-3 win against Yugoslavia. Spain were living dangerously and their luck did not hold. They lost 2-1 to France in the quarter-finals, with Raúl Gonzalez suffering the indignity of missing a second-half penalty that would have seen them draw level.
Camacho carries on
Camacho's credentials as a coach were not called into question by the success-hungry Spanish public after the tournament, and the coach was able to lead Spain as they joined Bosnia-Herzigovina, Liechtenstein and old friends Israel and Austria in qualifying Group Seven for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Their results in qualification were less spectacular than the campaign for EURO 2000™, but the final result was the same - Spain qualified as group winners with their only dropped points coming in 1-1 draws away to Austria and Israel.
It was almost comforting to Spanish supporters that results were less emphatic than they were in the qualification campaign for EURO 2000™. They were an indication of a side less prone to extremes of self-confidence and self-doubt as previous Spanish sides. At the start of 2002, Spain were being talked about as genuine contenders for European honours. This much is certain - win or lose, they will inevitably do so in style.
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