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New identity for the Armada

The summer of 2008 will never be forgotten by Spanish football fans. After a seemingly eternal 44-year spell since its last victory in a meaningful tournament, the national team won Euro 2008 with a fantastic display of classy football. Spain managed to beat Russia twice, Sweden, Greece, Italy (in a penalty shootout!) and Germany in the final, to achieve European glory and win the tournament in convincing fashion.

During the previous decade, Spanish athletes had achieved resounding triumphs in pretty much every major sport, such as basketball, tennis, F1 racing, motorbikes, cycling... However, football was still the most popular sport in the country, and the fact that La Liga clubs occasionally won European competitions could not hide the harsh reality of our perennially underachieving national team.

They thoroughly deserved the ''Armada''nickname, a sarcastic reminder of Spain's navy spectacular failure when Felipe II tried to invade England in 1588. Ours was a side that, like the 16th century fleet, was assembled to win, but always ended up falling short.

Until last summer, Spaniards could easily remember several painful, embarrassing defeats in international tournaments, but few happy endings, most of them originally televised in black and white. The impact of the 2008 title was beyond the mere sporting accomplishment. The country actually started to follow the national team, which previously was a secondary option to club football.

The change in attitude was clear this week. First of all, the Spanish FA chose a traditional side (England, no less) to play a non-competitive match, which in itself is almost a revolution: the old approach consisted of organising friendly matches against weak sides to get easy wins and build confidence. These encounters were obviously not very attractive to the Spanish supporter.

Now things are different. Even though England did not have all their starters on Wednesday, an English national team with Fabio Capello pulling the strings constitutes a serious challenge. The Spanish FA finally believes in the national team and wants to exploit its popularity, testing it against competent sides (and cashing on it, of course).

Then we have the supporters. Sevilla always was a great football city, but in any case it was surprising to see a full house for a friendly match in midweek, just four days after a local derby. Tickets were expensive, but the threw a huge party in the stadium, happy to see their team maintain their impressive 29-match unbeaten run. The national team has found its mojo, and no Spaniard wants to miss a single demonstration of its power, as shown in the extremely high TV ratings.

Finally, the players are behaving with such a swagger, on and off the pitch, that it seems as though they believe they can't lose. Coach Vicente del Bosque, already used to being in the spotlight from his Real Madrid years, has been able to preserve the great team atmosphere Luis Aragonés built, shrewdly dealing with sterile controversies such as Raúl's selection (or lack of thereof).

Given the nature of the match, the win vs. England was not very meaningful. What really mattered was the continuous realisation of this team's main achievement: they have managed to get the country behind them in a way we hadn't seen before. This is no longer the ''Armada".

And while the national team has taken it to another level, La Liga maintains its own high entertainment standards. Leveraging Barcelona's large lead, Pep Guardiola has been resting his best players to save their top form for the end of the season. By doing that, he added a tiny bit of spice to the title race this weekend, as Barça's second half heroics ended in a draw to Betis in Sevilla, while Real Madrid won at Gijón.

On Saturday, Barcelona had fallen behind 2-0 at Betis after some sloppy defending. What came after Betis' second goal can only be catalogued as an avalanche of attacking football that saw Barcelona have 75% of ball possession, shooting 26 times and inexplicably scoring only twice. Ricardo, the Portuguese goalkeeper, was instrumental to avoid Betis' defeat.

The home team had a couple of counter attacking chances to put the match away, but all in all Barcelona's superiority was overwhelming. As we were watching Barça's offensive exhibition, my friend, a Real Madrid fan, said: ''It's a shame I can't root for these guys, they're unbelievable". You won't hear that very often coming from a Real Madrid fan.

The meringues keep accumulating clean sheets and wins in a row (eight), plus this time also scored four against a bland Sporting de Gijón. Raúl's arrival was greeted by the Molinón faithful with chants asking him to retire, and reminding him that Villa, a Gijón youth school product, currently owns Spain's number 7.

Raúl answered his critics by scoring twice to break Alfredo di Stefano's record and become number one in Real Madrid's all time scoring list. This is what you get when you provoke a living legend.

El Molinón also had the privilege to see Marcelo and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar score their first goals in a Real Madrid shirt. The side is progressively coming together, and their European clash against Liverpool in 10 days time seems to arrive at the best possible moment of the season for the vikingos... except for Robben's umpteenth injury, but that can't surprise anyone.

Almería and Valladolid played the thriller of the weekend. Valladolid led 0-2 at halftime, but Almería came back in the second half despite having two players sent off. Valladolid showed their class in the first half and their naivety in the second; goalie, Justo Villar, deserves to be mentioned because of his two ridiculous blunders that gave the match away.

Sevilla took advantage of a terminal Espanyol side to put an end to their three-match losing streak and get comfortable in the third position. Elsewhere, Valencia are not doing that well: the club is in the verge of bankruptcy, and owes €15m in players' wages. It would not be surprising if they sold some of their stars in the short term in order to survive.

The new Atlético went back to their old ways, letting two points slip in the last minute of their match against Getafe, and Camacho's Osasuna continued their recovery with an away draw at La Coruña.

With La Liga getting more interesting by the week, and the national team entering its historical prime, the cherry on the Spanish football cake would be a set of good results for Spanish clubs in the European competitions. We'll only need a couple of weeks to start finding out...

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