How Will Spain Cope With Their Favourites Tag?

Spain are universally considered to be favourites to lift the FIFA World Cup in South Africa on July 11.

Their triumph at Euro 2008 has loosened the medallion of ‘nearly-men’ from around their neck, a hindrance which proved to be too heavy for Raul`s generation to overcome, and for the first time ever, La Furia Roja enter a major tournament with little to prove.

Similar to the respect that domestic champions Barcelona collect from across the globe, Spain are widely regarded as wonderful to watch, and have a squad bristling with talent. To many, they would be worthy winners of a tournament where the major European superpowers such as Italy, France and the injury-hit Germans are not seen on paper as viable threats.

However, in a similar vein to France after their Euro 2000 victory, the weight of expectation that success can bring can often be as overbearing as the hunt for success itself. At World Cup 2002, Les Bleus were deemed to be the team to beat, but their bid to become the first side since Brazil in 1962 to retain the title was a disastrous one. An unfamiliar climate in an unfamiliar continent combined with a stunning opening game defeat to Senegal, the absence of Zinedine Zidane in the first two group matches, and a dramatic loss of form to key individuals left France winless, goal-less, and going home.

Vicente del Bosque`s men should take heed. On paper, their draw seems relatively straightforward, but being installed as pre-tournament favourites immediately places them on a pedestal, to be shot down by Honduras, Chile and Switzerland, who will be in the hunt for a famous result. Furthermore, La Roja`s World Cup history is littered with giant-killing defeats - Northern Ireland in 1982, Nigeria in 1998 and South Korea in 2002, to name but a few.

Being the team expected to do well, and expected to win, can psychologically disrupt a player`s focus and drive; if anyone in the squad feel that they will cruise through Group H simply by turning up to the party, they could be monumentally brought back down to Earth.

It could be argued that this team is too experienced to allow for such an elementary error of judgement, but it comes with the territory of being the team to beat, and the failure to perform in one match (think of the defeat to the USA in last summer`s Confederations Cup semi-final) can bring a methodically-planned campaign to a grinding halt.

Indeed complacency is a concern of every manager when facing inferior opposition, and one that is difficult to eradicate. Del Bosque’s array of talent must be able to disregard the praise and channel their preparations solely on the next opponent. ‘Taking each game as it comes’ may be a tired cliché, but in knockout competitions such as the World Cup, taking place in a month of intense action, it is absolutely crucial.
South Africa will become the epicentre of the planet from June 11 until July 11, with players facing greater media demand, greater scrutiny, not to mention seven matches in the space of 30 days, should they reach the final. The next match is the biggest match, as Del Bosque will repeat ad nauseum to his final 23, and there will be no talk of finals, of being victorious, only on the next task in hand.

World Cup fever is beginning to kick in, and one way of recognising this is the manner is which each nation’s domestic press exacerbate any minor team issues, and pinpoint any errors in a ruthless manner. If ever proof of this fact were needed, it can be found in the recent criticism of goalkeeper Iker Casillas following his performance versus Saudi Arabia. If even ‘San Iker’ isn’t safe from the snipers, then it’s time to recognise the euphoria and chaos that can ensue during a World Cup campaign.

Spain and in particular Victor Valdes, handled the situation superbly, giving the Real Madrid legend his full public backing. There had been concerns that Valdes’ inclusion despite never being capped at international level, could be a potential disruption to an otherwise harmonious squad. Valdes however was appreciative of the situation, and behaved diplomatically – an attitude that Spain’s squad as a whole has maintained, and will stand them in good stead.

The point being that it isn’t only the teams on the pitch that want to see a favourite falter – if there is potential for upsetting a squad, the manic, press-orientated World Cup bandwagons can see to that. Moreover, Spain`s recent imperious form has led to a general anticipation that this is a team in the midst of a halcyon era, and that world domination will naturally follow.
There is still the ongoing saga regarding the future of Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres at club level, and transfer rumours affect players more than they would like to admit. The English Premier League duo have been subject to incessant questioning regarding their destination for the 2010/11 season, Del Bosque needs to know that his players are focused on the task in hand.

The role of favourite brings additional problems to a coach and squad ahead of a major tournament that can easily be succumbed to. Vicente Del Bosque`s side will need to use all of their experience to avoid falling foul of the problems that have haunted them, and indeed others in their position, in the past.