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World Cup 2006 profile
Spain again gives an entire nation reasons to worry
Posted: Monday March 27, 2006 10:48AM; Updated: Monday March 27, 2006 3:56PM


Fernando Torres is one of the most feared strikers in the Spanish league. Can the 22-year-old lead Spain to success in Germany?
Ben Radford/Getty Images
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By Jonah Freedman, SI.com

Through late April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Spain. Click here for the full archive.

FIFA world ranking: No. 6.

How they qualified for Germany: Finished second to Serbia & Montenegro in UEFA Group 7 with a 5-5-0 record, then eliminated Slovakia in a home-and-away playoff.

Previous World Cups and finishes: 11 appearances (1934, '50, '62, '66, '78, '82, '86, '90, '94, '98, 2002). Fourth place in '50; quarterfinals in '34, '86, '94, '02.

Manager: Luis Aragonés, third year with team.

Key players
From top to bottom, Spain's roster features some of the world's best players at nearly every position. Goalkeeper Íker Casillas has been dominant for Real Madrid for six seasons and will be starting in his second World Cup at only age 25. Carles Puyol and his infamous mane are an institution in the Barcelona back line: He's tough, aggressive, fears no one and is one of the smartest defenders in the game.

La Selección also boasts a quartet of impact players who all ply their trade for Spanish coaching veteran Rafa Benítez at Liverpool: Fernando Morientes, Luis García, Xabi Alonso and backup 'keeper Pepe Reina.

But if Spain is to succeed in Germany, the responsibility may fall at the foot of forward Fernando Torres. At only 22, "El Niño" has become one of the most feared strikers in the Spanish league -- he has captained Atlético Madrid for four seasons and will again finish among La Liga's scoring leaders this year. But this will be Torres' first World Cup, and plenty will be expected of him.

Alongside Torres is the incomparable Raúl González (better known by just his first name), Spain's captain and its all-time leader in both goals and caps. No one understands the pressure La Selección faces more than Raúl: For all his accolades, he has absorbed the brunt of criticism from both media and fans for his -- as well as Spain's -- lackluster performances at the '02 World Cup and at Euro '04. There's no doubt Raúl is the leader of this team, but at 28, he's no longer the player he was, and recent injury troubles have left his durability in doubt.

What to watch for
The word underachievers seems permanently attached to Spain when it comes to the World Cup. It has become a quadrennial rite of passage for Spaniards to see their team enter the tournament with high expectations, then watch them flame out spectacularly. For all the world-class players Spain has produced over the years, La Selección's best finish at the Cup was fourth place -- in 1950 -- and it has failed to even get out of the group stage in four of its appearances. In fact, Spain's crowning soccer achievement was probably its gold-medal finish in the '92 Barcelona Summer Olympics in front a home crowd.

Since Aragonés took over following Spain's elimination from Euro '04, the team hasn't lost a match. But with its history, many Spaniards are concerned that their coach is relying on a battered, veteran-heavy starting lineup (count midfielders Vicente and Xavi among the ailing) and isn't giving enough playing time to his healthy stars of the future. Aragonés is particularly loyal to his gimpy captain, Raúl, whereas 25-year-old Valencia striker David Villa -- tearing up La Liga this season -- could easily step in. Likewise, fans are screaming to see more of heat-seeking 18-year-old attacking midfielder Cesc Fàbregas, who is dazzling Arsenal fans.

There's also a sense that no one really knows what this team is capable of. As usual, Spain has a wildly talented group that, on paper, has more than enough ability to win the World Cup. But this is a squad that has struggled against inferior competition -- La Selección couldn't even win a qualification group that included Belgium, Lithuania and San Marino, and its friendly schedule over the past few years has been littered by such knee-knocking opponents as Canada, Russia and Andorra.

Ultimately, when it comes to the World Cup, Spaniards err more toward anxiety than they do cautious optimism. Their team has the guns, but the added pressure of history may be too big an albatross for La Selección to carry. On the other hand, is this finally the year?

Group: H (Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia).

Key match in group stage: June 19 vs. Tunisia. Invariably, Spain always takes an underdog for granted in the group stage, and this would seem to be that match. Look for Aragonés to throw all his weapons at Ukraine in Spain's first -- and likely most difficult -- match. If the Spaniards have anything left against the Tunisians, we may have a better idea if they're in it for real this time.

Oddsmakers' line: 14-1.

Projected Starting Lineup
Pos. Player Club team
G Íker Casillas Real Madrid (Spain)
D Asier del Horno Chelsea (England)
D Carles Puyol FC Barcelona (Spain)
D Míchel Salgado Real Madrid (Spain)
D Carlos Marchena Valencia (Spain)
M Vicente Valencia (Spain)
M Xavi* FC Barcelona (Spain)
M Luis Garcia Liverpool (England)
M Xabi Alonso Liverpool (England)
F Raúl Real Madrid (Spain)
F Fernando Torres Atlético Madrid (Spain)
*Currently injured, may not be healthy in time for Germany
 
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