Spain feels a sense of destiny
Spain has reached the World Cup semifinals for the first time
The current squad is arguably Spain's finest-ever generation of players
Euro 2008 win has given Spain more mental strength and self-belief
Ever get the feeling that fate is on your side, that destiny is yours? No, of course not. Stupid question. Mostly, we can't help but think that fate is somehow conspiring against us; that it's just not going to happen. Not through any fault of our own, naturally, but because someone, somewhere has it in for us. And when it came to soccer and the World Cup, mostly Spain felt that too. In fact, it was temping to conclude that the Spanish were obsessed by it. It didn't matter how the national team played, bad luck, bad refereeing and bad tackles -- or a wicked combination of all three -- would conspire to defeat them.
Not any more. Now, the feeling is that whatever fate throws at them they can overcome. That even three posts, the ball bouncing round before hitting the net like Teenwolf's final, slow motion shot, can't stop them. Now, some even dare to believe that destiny is theirs. Even if the referees aren't -- even if the referees, to judge by the sports media here, are grimly determined to sink the Spanish. Before Saturday night, Spain had never reached a semifinal of the World Cup before. True, they were fourth in 1950 but that actually meant finishing bottom of a four-team group from which the finalists were chosen, not playing a semifinal. Four times they had been in a quarterfinal but it proved an insurmountable barrier.
In Italy in 1934, it lost in a replay to the hosts, with Spain's goalscorer Luis Regueiro complaining: "The refs had been told that Italy had to win. The Fascist regime needed it." In Mexico in 1986, having put five past Denmark, they were unluckily knocked out by Belgium on penalties. And in 1994, it again faced the country it most loved to hate. Italy won 2-1. Julio Salinas famously missed an easy chance at 1-1 and in the dying minutes Mauro Tassotti's elbow deliberately smashed Luis Enrique's nose all over his face, blood staining his white shirt. It was in the area, but the referee gave nothing.
Then there was 2002, when Spain believed itself to be the victim of a conspiracy to ensure that host South Korea would reach the semifinal. Referee Gamal al Ghandour ruled that the ball had run out of play before Joaquín delivered the cross that Fernando Morientes headed in. It hadn't. Joaquín, Spain's outstanding player at the tournament, subsequently missed the vital penalty in a cruel shootout.
This time is different. This time, Spain have reached the semifinal. Even if they don't win the World Cup now, this generation of players -- which, for all the sob stories of the past, for all the excuses and mitigating factors, is simply far better than any that went before -- have already made history. On Sunday morning, every newspaper in the country led on Spain's victory over Paraguay. "Histórico", cheered El Mundo Deportivo, while Marca's cover showed Iker Casillas on his knees, fists clenched and raised to the sky alongside the headline: "All our lives waiting for a day like this."
On Gol Televisión, the presenter announced that Spain had won "their most important game in 100 years". "Whether you're five years old or 50, and even if you are 100, you've never seen anything like this," Marca added, going into exclamation mark overdrive: "!!!Spain are the semifinals of the World Cup!!!" AS' match reporter summed it up: "Last night we won what we always lost. There was a sense of history repaying a debt."
By reaching the semifinal, by going further than they have ever done before, Spain has fulfilled its obligations. The weight of history was already removed from its shoulders by winning Euro2008, now that feeling is enhanced. The weight of expectation has dissipated too. And the weight of criticism. Spain still has not played as well as anyone would have liked at this World Cup, but that was washed away by reaching the promised land. If they do not win the World Cup now it will be a disappointment; if they had not reached the semifinals it would have been a failure.
(Whether that judgment is right is, of course, another issue: it could be argued that in terms of its play Spain has not had a great World Cup; that a semifinal place masks a relatively unremarkable campaign so far).
Not that Spain want to stop here. History has more repaying to do. More to the point. This team has more to give. Getting here has increased the sense that Spain can go further -- just as Fernando Torres insisted that the day Spain won the European Championships was not the day it beat Germany in the final, but the day that it defeated Italy in the quarterfinal. "The best is yet to come," said coach Vicente Del Bosque. And the thing is most people believe that it can come. Can? Will. Most people believe that destiny is no longer cruel. In fact, it is kind. Very kind.
Look at it like this: after its opening-game defeat, the country's best-selling newspaper led on "the same old Spain?" but since then, everything seems to be falling into place. Fate is dealing a tidy hand. Spain has not been at its best, but it has not mattered. Even the tennis omen looks good. The only other time Rafa Nadal won Wimbledon, Spain won the European Championships. These are not entirely vacuous arguments either -- that sense of destiny does filter into players' minds, reinforcing belief, confidence and conviction. How could it not when you consider what has happened in South Africa so far, where even the defeat against Switzerland seems to have done them some good?
In the second round, Spain avoided Brazil and the side that Del Bosque was concerned about, the Ivory Coast. In the quarters, Italy wasn't awaiting. Brazil is out (the day they were defeated by the Netherlands, Marca's headline said it all: "We've been freed from Brazil in the final"). Argentina is out. Spain played a Portugal side that really isn't that good -- and scored with a goal that looked offside. Then it played Paraguay -- and survived a penalty that would have left them on the edge of a knockout, as well as scoring via three posts. And now it's Germany ... without argualy its best player of the tournament.
But, still, it is Germany. The best side in the competition so far. And there is no denying that Spain has yet to truly find it form, it has, after all, won its last two games 1-0 and was a little fortunate against both Paraguay and Chile. There are questions too about Torres' form -- he could be replaced by David Silva or Cesc Fabregas -- and about the physical advantage that Germany pose, as well as the superb form shown by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil. No one is under any illusions that this is a better German team than the one Spain beat in the final of Euro2008.
On the evidence so far, the key could well be who scores first -- both sides have proven that with the lead they are extremely hard to defeat. Germany because its counter-attacking game means it's dangerous when the other side is stretched. Spain because, liberated from the need and the anxiety to seek a goal, it can do what it does better than anyone else: keep the ball, effectively anaesthetising the opposition. It is not entirely coincidental that Spain and Germany have found themselves behind just once each so far. And that both sides lost when that happened, against Serbia and Switzerland respectively.
That suggests an advantage for Germany, who have found the opening goal easier to come by: the Germans scored after eight minutes against Australia, 20 minutes against England and 3 minutes against Argentina; Spain struggled to get the breakthrough, scoring in the 63rd minute against Portugal and the 83rd against Paraguay. But then Spain have defended far better than Australia, Argentina or England; both as a back four and, more significantly, as a collective. As German coach Jogi Löw put it: "We knew Argentina were a team split in two. The three at the top don't like to drop deep and the midfielders aren't able to create." Spain could hardly be more different.
There is also a feeling that -- contradictory though it sounds -- Spain are better off playing stronger sides. Rather than having to unlock a tough, aggressive, organized side that comes to defend, it should suit them (and, incidentally, Torres in particular) to face a team that will open up and play. There will be no bus parked on the German goal line. For the first time at this World Cup Spain go into a game not being clear favorites. And, oddly, that's been taken as good thing. Much like everything else that has happened at this historic World Cup so far.