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SELF-BELIEF FLOWS FROM BILBAO TO SEVILLE. LA FURIA ROJA, WHICH WAS ONCE REPUTED TO BE AS SOFT AS PAELLA, FINALLY FOUND ITS RESOLVE IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME OF Euro 2008 and defeated powerful Germany 1-0. Having cast off its choker label—and assuming that a 2-0 loss to the U.S. in the 2009 Confederations Cup semis did no lasting damage—Spain is a favorite to make the title game in South Africa. "Historically, Spain has always had a collection of very talented and very good players, but what makes this team special is exactly what they are: a team," said U.S. assistant Mike Sorber. "[They] play collectively. And they are very dangerous."
The Spaniards put a host of stars on the field (Xavi, Fernando Torres, David Villa, Andrés Iniesta, Iker Casillas) and even have one on the bench (Cesc Fàbregas, if his broken leg heals in time for South Africa), and they maintain possession better than any other team on the planet. Torres, whose speed and aerial exploits regularly thrill his Premier League supporters in Liverpool, teams up front with Villa to find the net and break opponents' hearts. Villa scored seven times in qualifying, and in South Africa he could very well pass Raúl, whom he trails 36 to 44, to become Spain's alltime leading scorer.
La Furia's midfield and defense are drawn largely from La Liga superclubs Barcelona and Real Madrid. The dynamic midfield has loads of international experience, from Real's Xabi Alonso (66 caps through April 4) to Barcelona's Xavi (84) and Iniesta (40). On defense Barça teammates Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué hold down the middle, while Real's Sergio Ramos covers the right flank and Joan Capdevila, a virtual interloper from Villarreal, mans the left. Casillas, the second-most capped goalie in Spanish history (102 times) and a mainstay for Real Madrid since 2001, was named World's Best Goalkeeper in 2008 by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics and was voted to the UEFA Team of the Year for 2009, his third consecutive such honor.
The Euro 2008 win sent Spain from No. 4 to No. 1 in FIFA's world rankings, but manager Vicente del Bosque is preaching caution. For starters, the U.S. victory in the Confederations Cup, which ended an unbeaten streak of 35 games dating back to November 2006, offered a game plan for beating the Spaniards: If you can pressure the middle so it can't play the ball forward and you can get a spectacular performance from your keeper, La Furia will leave itself open to speedy counterattacks. "We must not underestimate our opponents," del Bosque told reporters in February. "Thinking that we are the strongest is obviously stupid, because we know that this competition demands concentration and humility."
Still, Group H should be a fiesta for Spain. "It looks like we were lucky [in the draw]," Casillas said, "but we must...not think that we have nine points in the bag."
Spain's front line is formidable. With their combination of speed, power and touch, Torres and Villa form an explosive strike partnership that might be the best of any nation's.
If Torres and Villa are formidable, this unit is simply divine. Xabi Alonso, a master of the long-distance pass, plays both sides of the field equally well. David Silva is ever on the attack. Xavi and Iniesta lead breaks with their elegant short and mid-range passes, which rarely miss their mark. "I don't think [they] have ever given the ball away in their lives," said Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. "They get you on that carousel, and they can leave you dizzy."