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May 26, 2008

Spain: Time to realise the potential

Always fancied but rarely able to deliver, Spain again arrive at a major championship tipped for success. That they have only once managed to reach the semi-finals of a major tournament since they won the European Championships in 1964 serves as perfect proof of their under-achievement.

Controversial coach Luis Aragones takes his side to Austria and Switzerland as clear second favourites behind Germany and again there is huge pressure to perform.

No doubt Aragones will be urging his players to prove their critics wrong and summon up the spirit of '64. That success came on home soil when they beat the Soviet Union 2-1 in Madrid with goals from Maria Pereda and an 84th minute winner by Marcelino Martínez.

Ranked fourth in the world, many believe there is a real chance to repeat the success of 34 years ago, especially with talent like Fernando Torres, Sergio Ramos and captain Ilker Casillas forming a superb base for their team.

However, much was expected of Spain four years ago when the tournament was held next door in Portugal. Despite winning their group opener against Russia they could only draw with Greece and then lost to the hosts to put them straight on the plane home. It was a huge disappointment.

With Inaki Saez replaced by Aragones for the World Cup qualifying programme for once they found it a struggle to qualify, needing to beat Slovakia in a play-off. Though Aragones led Spain through a weak group involving Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Ukraine they failed to beat France in the Round of 16.

Aragones kept his job for Euro 2008 qualifying, where they progressed with fellow Group D finalists Sweden. Their qualification appeared to be in doubt when they lost back-to-back games against Sweden and Northern Ireland but that was the only real blip on their road to the finals. They eventually won through with relative comfort, eight points clear of third placed Northern Ireland.

Known as 'The Wise Man of Hortaleza', Aragones has had a colourful tenure in charge of the national team. The 70-year-old played his club football for Getafe, Real Madrid, AD Plus Ultra, Real Betis, Real Oviedo, Recreativo Huelva and Atletico Madrid before moving into coaching in 1974.

He was a legend at Atletico, nicknamed as a player Zapatones (big boots). He took charge of the team following his retirement from playing.

Aragones went on to manage a whole host of Spanish clubs, winning the league title with Atletico in 1977, as well as the King's Cup in 1976, 1985 and 1992. During his tenure, Atletico also won the Intercontinental Cup (1974) and Supercopa de Espana (1985). Aragones' other title came in the form of another King's Cup success with Barcelona in 1988.

Not one to shy away from controversy, Aragones is famed for his temper and the propensity to fly off the handle. He even had to step away from the game for a short time in the mid-80s due to mental illness.

His most high profile indiscretion came shortly after he was handed the job of Spain coach in 2004 when a TV crew filmed him saying to Jose Antonio Reyes in reference to his then team-mate Thierry Henry: 'Tell that negro de mierda [black s**t] that you are much better than him'. It caused a huge racism storm and led to UEFA fining the Spanish FA £44,000 and warning them that any future repeat could see them suspended from international football or forced to play behind closed doors.

The Spanish FA subsequently fined Aragones £2,060 but he did not help his cause by then going on a tirade against the punishment, claiming he was innocent.

Aragones has also shown his ruthless side, axing talismanic striker Raul in 2006 and resisting calls to bring him back from the wilderness of this summer's campaign after he bagged 18 goals in Real's championship winning season.

Euro 2008 will be Aragones' swansong on the international stage as he will be replaced by Vicente Del Bosque for the World Cup qualifying campaign.

Aragones, with an embarrassment of riches in terms of quality performers, should have a side capable of entertaining and scoring in Austria & Switzerland. It is likely, though, he will start the tournament with Torres as his sole striker supported by a midfield boasting Marcos Senna, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva.

While many will have an eye on Torres following his record 24-goal debut season haul for Liverpool, perhaps Spain's most influential player will be Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos.

A goalscoring right-back with strength and determination, he will add drive to the team and he is also an inspiration to his team-mates. Ramos, a graduate of the FC Sevilla youth academy, is widely regarded as the best right-sided defender in the world because of his ability to make things happen in the attacking third of the pitch.

An £18million capture for Real in 2005, which made him the third most expensive teenager in world football behind Wayne Rooney, he scored five goals from the back this term. But if there's one way in which he can be caught out it's with his determination to get forward in support of the forward line.

The former Under-21 international is one of only two Real players selected by Aragones - Casillas is the other. Yet while Ramos is able to operate in the centre of defence it is on the flanks where he performs best.

The 22-year-old made his international debut against China in March 2005, becoming the youngest player to represent Spain for 55 years. He progressed to become his country's first choice right-back during the 2006 World Cup, displacing Michel Salgado.

A danger at set-pieces and a born leader, Ramos should turn out to be one of the stars of the tournament.

Spain should qualify from Group D with a degree of comfort considering the weapons at their disposal. Greece, despite being the current holders, Sweden and Russia are not in the top tier of European football. However, all too often Spain have failed to prove their world ranking against such opposition.

The two nations which qualify from Group D will play those which advance from Group C which means there's a very real chance that Spain and France could renew their rivalry from Germany two years ago. It does appear that a stiff task lies in wait even if it is not France.

Spain will expect to make the semi-finals this summer. The question is, will they flatter to deceive? Again.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Dale Johnson.

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