Something strange is happening just days before the World Cup kicks off: Spain isn’t the odds-on favorite to win.
Brazil is a very strong team and will have the tremendous support of home crowds for every match. Argentina has the world’s best player, Lionel Messi. Germany has the deepest and most talented squad. Those are the three favorites that experts and betting companies have tipped to win it all.
And then comes Spain. The reigning World Cup and European champ, Spain only has a chance to make international soccer history and go down as the greatest generation of soccer talent ever assembled. No pressure there.
A second consecutive World Cup victory — a feat not managed since Brazil did in more than 50 years ago in 1958 and 1962 — would be the country’s fourth straight international title, including the 2008 and 2012 European Championships. No other country has managed that feat.
It’s hard to believe that seven years ago, the Spanish national team wasn’t considered a world power. Always a bridesmaid, the team hadn’t won a major trophy since 1964. The roster was too small and lacked superstars and experience.
Since then, under coach Vicente del Bosque, Spain has conquered the world and Europe — Spanish clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona have won 13 titles, including three Champions Leagues since 2008.
They’ve done it with style, a beautiful, possession-based attack called “tiki-taka.” The patient style, made famous by Barcelona, often lulls a team to sleep before incisively carving them open for a goal-scoring chance. It’s mesmerizing to watch.
Del Bosque has relied on many of the same players (pulling heavily from Barcelona and Real Madrid’s celebrated ranks) during this run.
Thirteen players from the 2008 Euro squad made the 2014 World Cup. For many, including goalkeeper Iker Casillas (33 years old), midfielders Xavi (34) and Xabi Alonso (32), and forward David Villa (32), it’s likely their last major tournament.
The cupboard won’t be bare after those losses. Cesc Fabregas and David Silva have been around since 2008 but are only 27 and 28, respectively.
A tough group stage is the first obstacle for the Spanish, including a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final with the Netherlands and a very tricky match with Chile. Andres Iniesta, scorer of the important goal in 2010, is again one of Spain’s leading attackers.
Tricky knockout-stage matches — even potentially against Brazil if Spain finishes second in the group — also lie in wait.
It might be hard to count on Spain to repeat this World Cup, but it would be harder to count out a generation this experienced, talented and battle-tested.