32 Teams in 32 Days: Spain
Group B | Netherlands | Chile | Australia
Spain have based their recent success on technique, ball possession, intelligence and constant circulation of the ball, looking for space and opportunities. They hold all this as a philosophy -- they cherish and defend it.
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If a team wants to go toe-to-toe with them, they do so at their peril. If they are physically better and have more stamina, they may win. If they do it when they are not at the top of their game, Spain will cut loose and usually win by a good margin.
Most teams choose caution, a more stifling approach. Manager Vicente del Bosque wants victory with style and honesty, but he also values organization and order in the midfield.
This will be Spain's 10th straight World Cup appearance and 14th overall. They won it all four years ago in South Africa and their best previous performance was finishing fourth overall in 1950.
How they reached Brazil
Having won the 2012 Euros, Spain's path to Brazil looked like a stroll on paper. Georgia, Belarus, France, Finland -- not necessarily a group to make them quake. But it proved very interesting.
Injuries at various moments to Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas, among others, meant that draws at home against France and away versus Finland left no margin for error. The really big "champion" performance came in Paris. Pedro's lone goal, the save of Victor Valdés' international career, and Spain booked their trip to Brazil.
The numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
Spain's run of victories between 2007 and 2013 established this group of players (the core group and those who have flitted on and off the squad during the three tournaments over that span) as the most successful in history. They beat every great squad -- England, Italy, France, Argentina, Germany, Holland, Chile, Portugal -- except Brazil.
Then came the 2013 Confederations Cup final in Rio and a meeting against the hosts. After a draining 120 minutes and penalties against Italy in the semifinals, in the humidity and heat of Fortaleza, Spain weren't ready for Brazil. They didn't start well and lost 3-0. Spain believed they played at a huge disadvantage due to the match schedule, lack of rest and that Brazil were allowed what they saw as far too much leeway for fouling.
You won't catch any of La Roja speaking about a rival any further ahead than the next game. But Brazil, yes, they are in Spain's sights after last summer.
Most important player
How do you identify one key man on a team that is built on the power of the system? Spain hold the ball well, if Casillas, Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets are all fit. But how does one open up teams that "park the bus"? Well, once again, the ability of Andrés Iniesta to split open even the most cynical defence must make him Spain's key man.
Definition of success
Del Bosque wants a certain definition of "success" broadened to include Spain defending their title with dignity and fair play, but equally being able to lose with grace and sportsmanship.
Once that concept is established, don't doubt that Spain are there to retain their title. And they believe they will. Not one of them has avoided the sting of defeat in a big moment, so you'll be hard-pressed to find a single La Roja player who hasn't contemplated the massive task of a fourth straight tournament won as a European squad in South America.
How far will Spain go?
They will reach the Cup final.
ESPN FC Analysts' take: Steve McManaman
Honestly, what can you say? They are the team to beat. Spain are a fantastic side and should probably go down as the greatest national team ever. And out of all the teams that we're going to see in Brazil, this one is best on the eye. These players may not win the World Cup, but they will play better and more attractive football than everyone else.
Pique and Ramos are not the biggest centre-backs, and playing in La Liga, they're not used to the hustle and bustle of having to defend against big centre forwards. So any set pieces, corners, free kicks into the box, where height is an advantage -- that's big trouble for Spain.