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Sunday 17 December 2017

CONFIDENT

AS THE draw for EURO 2012 was being made at the Ukraine Palace of Arts last December, several wise men of Spanish football collectively looked on while broadcasting proceedings to an attentive nation via the hugely popular sports radio show Carrusel Deportivo.

"So, let's see," said host Carlos Martínez mid-draw, "It's going to be either France or the Republic of Ireland in our group," he explained as Zinedine Zidane swirled plastic mini footballs around a glass bowl some 3,500 kilometres away. "I don't want either of them," former Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Canizares nervously piped in.

A brief wait ensued before the station's on-site correspondent shrieked "It's Ireland, we've got Ireland." Back at base, the six analysts - including ex-Spanish international midfielder Guti - agreed that Spain had dodged a bullet.

"Bruno Alemany," the host shouted to the man charged to give the low-down on Spain's opponents, "Ireland; what can you tell us?" With Amhrán na bhFiann now solemnly playing in the background, Bruno briefed the nation's listeners on the strengths and weaknesses of La Roja's - or 'The Reds' - opponents in Gdansk on June 14th.

"The undoubted star of the team is Robbie Keane who is enjoying something of a renaissance at the LA Galaxy and with the national side," he explained.

"This is the team of the mythical Trapattoni, the defensive maestro who has stamped his style on the boys in green. They may be strong at the back but their failing lies in the fact that they are limited to a direct style of play."

Just over six months on and Spain have had sufficient time to garner a deeper analysis of not just Ireland but also Italy and Croatia, the other two countries drawn in Group C. Yet despite the abundance of information at his disposal, coach Vicente del Bosque is confident enough to know that it is how the tournament favourites perform - and not their opponents - that will dictate Spanish fortunes in the finals.

Confidence is a state of mind that is relatively new in Spain in terms of senior international football.

Until four years ago a collective groan emanated from fans when major tournaments rolled around.

Traffic didn't come to a standstill, plazas were not packed with red-shirted fans in June and victory parades through the streets were certainly not planned in advance of the big competitions. Despite a European championship victory in 1964 and another final appearance in 1984, a general inferiority complex pervaded not just among supporters but among the players themselves. The overriding belief before EURO 2008 was that the country's football team would, at best, get no further than the last eight.

It took one game to change that ethos, namely the quarter-final win against Italy on penalties in Vienna four years ago. During a nervy qualifying phase for the tournament -- which included a 3-2 defeat away to Northern Ireland -- the now 73-year-old Luis Aragonés made the difficult decision of dropping influential stars like Raúl in favour of those who responded more favourably to the tactics that have become synonymous with today's Spanish game.

All that remained was to correct the collective mindset and the Italian encounter would prove key. "In the build-up to that match it was as much a question of working on the players' characters as anything else; I sensed nerves among them that permeated throughout the entire country," Aragonés explained. The man nowadays referred to as the midfield brain of Spain and Barcelona, Xavi, commented: "We thought to ourselves 'this is it.' This was the chance to put all of the years of suffering at quarter-final stages behind us."



TALENT

Cesc Fabregas admitted to "Feeling an entire country pressing down on my shoulders," before he stepped up to take the crucial spot-kick in the shootout but the explosion of joy that followed when the former Arsenal man calmly stroked the ball beyond Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon soon transformed into a realisation that Spain - combining immense individual talent with collective belief - really could be the best.

"In that moment, it just hit us," goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas said after helping his team into the last four. Back in Austria for a training camp prior to the tournament, the World and European champions appeared calm as they geared up to defend the title that many believe paved the way to World Cup success in South Africa two years ago.

Despite the loss of David Villa and Carles Puyol though injury, and concerns over Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, the consensus here is that a third consecutive major tournament triumph is very much on the cards.

On completion of the draw for the finals last December, Carrusel Deportivo's on-site reporter nervously suggested Spain's playing and coaching staff would be none-too-pleased to have to open the defence of their European crown against the dangerous Italians.

"So what?," presenter Carlos Martínez confidently responded. "We had a difficult opening game at the last World Cup and look how that turned out."

pDubliner Paul Bryan began a career in journalism in his home city before moving to Paris where he spent two years reporting on various sporting events. He has spent the past six years working as a Spanish football correspondent from his base in Madrid.

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