Wednesday, June 07, 2006

#4: La Furia Roja


Where? Southwestern Europe, the vast majority of the Iberian peninsula.

How Big? Pretty big for Europe. Bigger than California, smaller than Texas (about twice the size of Wyoming. Population is pretty big, about twice the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook... Spain has territories in Africa. I had no idea, but apparently Spain controls the semi-autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, both located along the northern coast of Morocco. They're both called autonomous territories, but there is some level of control from Madrid, and definitely not Morocco (who actually disputes their existence). I had no idea. Also, did you know that the Spanish Navy is still called the Armada Espanola? The Spanish Armada. Silly school textbooks, telling me that it was wiped out in 1588. Not so. It still exists.

Geopolitical significance? Though a little less so than Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy, Spain is still one of Europe's most important economies and population centers. The economy has been improving in recent years, though changes brought on by the new Zapatero government may alter the recent upswing (or improve it, who knows?). Similarly, the defeat of President Aznar by Zapatero in the election just after the terrible Madrid bombing led to withdraw of many Spanish troops from Iraq. And that Madrid bombing reminded everyone that Spain has faced international terrorism quite a bit in its history, with recent Islamic terrorism a problem (about 2.5% of the population is Muslim, most of any other religion after Catholics). But the Basque separatist movement in northern Spain was one of the deadliest separatist groups in Europe, with 800+ deaths in its history (though a recent ceasefire agreement may prove reason for optimism).

Fun? Most people know about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and the throbbing club scene in Ibiza. And many of you might also know about Bunol, Spain, just outside of Valencia. On a Wednesday at the end of August, a ham is placed atop a greased flagpole. At 11:00 AM a crowd gathers and attempts to climb the pole and remove the ham. Bodies climb upon bodies to get it. Once the ham is removed from the pole, it begins. What is it? The world's largest tomato fight, the Tomatina. 240,000 pounds of tomatoes are trucked in for the fight. Stores board up windows. The rules are simple: throw tomatoes at other people. It is preferred that one smashes the tomato first, and please don't bring bottles or weapons. After a few hours of tomato fighting, a giant fire hose signals the end of the fight, and the beginning of the cleanup. Then there's a festival of the town's patron Saint. What's crazy is that this isn't an ancient medieval tradition that symbolized something about an evil lord refusing to allow his serfs to eat tomatoes or something. Nope, in fact it only started in 1944, or thereabouts. Some think it had something to do with protesting Franco, but others think it was just a prank that people bought into. Either way, it looks utterly ridiculous.


Spain is the world's worst choke artists in soccer. Unfulfilled promise describes them, in so many ways. They almost always qualify for major tournaments, but rarely advance far, despite being pegged by experts as favorites frequently. Though Spain may be home to the best professional league in the world, the national team has only once advanced past the quarterfinals of the World Cup - a fourth place finish in 1950(!!!). Some attribute the disappointments to cultural and political infighting. That might be reading too much into it, but there must be some reason for Spain's poor performances. The list is kind of disappointing. 11 Cups, 1 semifinal, 4 quarterfinals, 4 initial group eliminations. Sometimes luck has been against them, sometimes odd refereeing has played a role. But there really is no excuse for a country with that much footballing talent not to have a better record.

The good news is that Spain has recently been having some success at the Youth levels of football, winning the FIFA Youth World Championship (under 20) in 1999 and finishing second in 2003. The good news is that several of those players now are a part of the national team, and hitting their prime years (Casillas, Xavi, Marchena, Iniesta from 2003). The talent is there again. The question is whether they'll play with their hands around their necks.

Qualifying for this cup was made far more difficult than it probably should've been. It appears that Spain has difficulties with Balkan opponents. Spain drew the four matches with Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Add a draw at Lithuania, and they ended up with 20 points on 10 games, placing them second behind Serbia and Montenegro. The good news was that Spain was the only team in all of qualifying to even score on Serbia. The second place group finish sent them to the playoffs against Slovakia. They won the opener at home in convincing fashion 5-1 with a hat trick from Luis Garcia, basically clinching a slot. The return in Slovakia was a draw, sealing it.

The club's talent on paper is beyond solid, but as always the doubts will come as to whether they can meet expectations. The right half of the back line is among the best in the world, with Salgado and Puyol. The left may be the pair of young defenders from Atletico Madrid - Ibanez and Lopez. Young and somewhat inexperienced, playing together on the club could make up for it though. Behind them is Iker Casillas, one of the better keepers in the world. The midfield is where the youth movement is really seen. Luis Garcia, 28 is the veteran of the group. Xavi, Xabi Alonzo and 19 year old Cesc Fabregas are all born in the 1980s and none have truly hit their prime yet. Each has the opportunity to make a great leap forward. Up front is Spain's most capped outfield player of all time, Raul. Raul hasn't led Real or Spain as well as many had hoped, but on a younger team like this one, some experience is necessary (and he still averages a goal every two games). Paired with him, and the one to watch for goals this time is Fernando Torres. I've got a good feeling about him and that he'll be one of the names people remember.

The opener could be Spain's toughest match of the entire cup - Ukraine. Obviously, since I haven't done the profile for Ukraine yet, I'm very high on them. I think Shevchenko's time off proves him to be a little rusty, and he's forced out as a sub early in the second half, but not before he nets a goal putting Ukraine up one. The defensive adjustment doesn't work, as Spain gets off shot after shot late, finally equalizing in the 85th minute with a goal by Torres. 1-1, neither team gets a leg up in winning the group.

For many Spanish fans, probably a draw in the first match is the best thing that could happen to them. A win could give too much confidence. A loss could crush their spirit. The draw makes them hungry. And they feast on Tunisia. Lemerre just doesn't have enough to work with, and the skill of the front 6 overwhelm them. Fabregas nets one and Torres gets two more, putting him in the running for the Golden Boot. 3-0 Spain.

Spain is rolling now, and Saudi Arabia is in the way. They know that goal differential will likely decide the group, so Spain pushes forward. Raul scores in the first half, and Torres scores his fourth of the first round. 2-0 Spain, and that last goal actually clinches the top of the group.

The round of 16 features a rematch of Spain's elimination in 2002, South Korea. In 2002, Spain was, in a word, bent over and violated by the officials when a Ruben Baraja goal was disallowed in the early second half for offsides, and then in extra time it got even worse when the linesman saw a phantom ball cross the touch line just before it was crossed in and scored by Morientes. It was an unconscionably bad call. The match remained scoreless and Korea won on penalties. This time around Spain is due some karma. Raul slips behind the defense (and he might have been offside), and nets an opener in the first half. Things get scary for Spain when Korea equalizes. But late in the game, with about five minutes to go, Torres scores a fantastic goal to push Spain on through. And people in Spain can breathe again.

The win over Korea unfortunately only leads to Brazil. But unlike most teams, Spain has a unique advantage against Brazil - knowledge. Many of the best Spaniards have played with or against some of the best Brazillians. Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Robinho all play with several of the Spaniards, and all of the Italian-based Brazillians have played top Spanish teams in the Champions' League on multiple occasions. The win over Korea in the last round didn't completely right the wrong from 2002, so luck is on Spain's side. Raul scores from the spot in the first half and Torres breaks past Roberto Carlos for a second goal. Ronaldo scores to bring the Brazillians back, but a late goal from Raul seals the win. Spain stuns Brazil and the Champions are out. 3-1. The biggest shock of the tournament so far.

Spain, for the first time in 56 years has advanced to the semifinals, where they face England, who has advanced to the semis for the first time since 1990. Both teams have the appearance of a "team of destiny". Spain has one of the true stars of the tournament in Fernando Torres. England has had incredible play from the midfield and defense, and hasn't had the most difficult path either. This match starts with slow, physical play. Despite the play of both teams up to this point, neither team puts together successful scoring opportunities. The game gets bogged down in the midfield for most of the time. A few England chances are saved by Casillas, and Spain flubs the few chances they have. Extra time ends with no goals for either team. Penalties will decide the match, and one would think that Spain would have the edge with Casillas in goal. Unfortunately, the Spanish shooters fall apart. Torres bags the first one, but Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia both fail to score. England scores the first three. Raul is up next, needing to score to keep Spain in it. Post. Noise. England are in the final. Spain are heartbroken.

A totally spent Spain team doesn't show up for the third place match, losing to the next team I discuss 2-1. More details above.

As every World Cup seems for Spain, this one will be a roller coaster. But this time Spain achieves what so many have expected of them, and a bona fide star emerges in Torres. The team should only get better and will be one of the key favorites in South Africa 2010. The end will be another heartbreak, but over time Spain will look back fondly on this cup.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Spain would be... a team loaded with talent, frequently receiving top seeds, but constantly flopping and falling apart early. A team that when you look at their all-time record, you're stunned that they've never won anything, not even made the final four. Before a few years ago, Maryland and Syracuse would've both been good choices. Now, I think you have to look a little further down the ladder. Texas is a possibility, but they've made the Final Four. The team that actually springs to mind the most, and who has no reason whatsoever for not succeeding, is Missouri. Loaded with talent over the years, the only team in the area, but never puts it all together.

If Spain were to get screwed like 2002 again, the streets would surely run red with the blood of the infidel officials.