Andrés Iniesta is tipping Brazil and Vicente del Bosque has singled out England, but for many there is only one real favourite to lift the FIFA World Cup come 11 July: European champions Spain.
"If we'd said four years ago that Spain would win the European Championships and go into the World Cup with a real chance of winning it, you'd have said we were mad," Fernando Torres admits. "But not now." Indeed, since the Liverpool FC striker's goal ended a 44-year wait for major silverware in Vienna two years ago, La Roja have gained a new identity, a new belief. Once perennial dark horses, Spain now have genuine pedigree.
The statistics really do not lie. Spain ended World Cup qualifying with a 100% record and have won 36 of their last 37 matches. And in some style, too. During March's 2-0 friendly victory over France in Paris they played with such sparkle that large swathes of the partisan crowd simply swapped their support after half-time, Oléing their every deft touch and slick pass. If you cannot beat them – and few believe they can – then join them.
"It's almost impossible to get the ball when you play against Spain," France coach Raymond Domenech lamented at the time. "They have exceptional talent, sacrificed for the collective good. They play without haste and yet they do so with intensity and intent. Their circulation of the ball is spectacular and the final pass from midfield is like a penalty for anyone else."
It is why, as Torres points out "everyone is talking about us", the 26-year-old adding: "Whenever coaches or players are asked for their favourites, they mention Spain. We've earned that. We would like not to have this role but we have it and have to accept it." His coach is finding the expectation harder to bear. Thinking yourself favourites is, says Del Bosque, a "terrible trap – we are, for the moment, just dreamers".
But they are not. From the moment Cesc Fàbregas beat Italy's Gianluigi Buffon from the penalty spot to book a place in the last four at UEFA EURO 2008, Spain went from a side that promised so much to one that actually delivered. Torres completed the transformation when he deftly clipped the ball past Jens Lehmann in the final and – one aberration against the United States last summer aside – the juggernaut has rumbled on ever since.
Yet Del Bosque knows how heavy that favourites' tag can be; his caution, affected or not, is an attempt to alleviate it. Indeed, only one of the 12 previous UEFA European Championship holders have gone on to claim the global crown, a West Germany team led by Franz Beckenbauer triumphing on home soil in 1974.
But they were merely one of the favourites as this was the era of the Netherlands' Total Football, when Jairzinho and Rivelino were in their prime for Brazil. Despite the best efforts of Iniesta and Del Bosque, there is nobody to share Spain's burden – the question is whether they can handle it. Wednesday's meeting with Switzerland could provide some answers.
|UEFA European Championship holders at the FIFA World Cup|
|Year||Reigning European champions||How they fared|
|1978||Czechoslovakia||Did not qualify|
|1994||Denmark||Did not qualify|
|2006||Greece||Did not qualify|
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