June 6, 2010
The soccer mood in Spain these days? The locals would describe it as tener la moral por las nubes ("morale as high as the clouds"), an outpouring of confidence that flows from Barcelona to La Coru√±a. Since 2006 Spain has lost only once in 45 games—a 2--0 stunner to the U.S. at the Confederations Cup last June—and is rightly tabbed as the favorite in South Africa. La Furia Roja, famous for decades of underachievement, finally found its resolve in Euro 2008 and defeated Germany 1--0 in the final. The time has come for the greatest generation of Spanish footballers to claim the ultimate prize.
The lineup reads like a La Liga All-Star team, including midfielders Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andrés Iniesta, defender Sergio Ramos, striker David Villa and goalkeeper Iker Casillas. But the star among stars is striker Fernando Torres, whose speed and aerial exploits at Liverpool have brought him worldwide acclaim (and rampant rumors of a multimillion-dollar move to Barcelona or Chelsea). Torres had surgery in April to remove torn cartilage in his right knee but appears to be fit, as does Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who broke his right leg in a Champions League game in late March.
Bar√ßa teammates Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué anchor the central defense, while Casillas, a mainstay in goal for Real Madrid since 2001, provides composure, superior positioning and lightning reflexes. It is a roster stocked with galàcticos, and no one will be close in this group.
Like Spain, Chile has long had a reputation for lethal finishers, and the latest is Humberto (Chupete) Suazo, who topped South American qualifying with 10 goals. The attack also features Mark (Speedy) Gonàlez, a blazing left winger now with CSKA Moscow; Alexis Sànchez, an attacking winger for Udinese in Serie A, who's known as El Ni√±o Maravilla ("the Wonder Boy"); and midfielder Matías Fernàndez, a playmaker and free-kick specialist. Behind coach Marcelo Bielsa, a disciplinarian nicknamed El Loco for his sideline antics, Chile has risen to 18th in the FIFA rankings from a low of 84th in 2002. Of course, La Roja's obsession with moving forward often leaves it exposed in the back; Chile conceded 22 goals in 18 matches during qualification. Such an all-ornothing style puts pressure on goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who keeps the net for Real Sociedad in Spain's second division. The schedule helps: Chile doesn't face Spain until its third game.
Switzerland's hopes to advance to the knockout stage rest with Alexander Frei, the captain and Basel striker who missed three months this year with a broken arm suffered in a Swiss Super League game in late February. Frei, who's scored a national-team record 40 times in 73 appearances, will play alongside Tranquillo Barnetta, a creative attacking midfielder who serves as the Swiss Beckham with his crosses. Coach Ottmar (the General) Hitzfeld, who won Champions League titles with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, is a terrific tactician, but can he get enough goals out of what is merely a hardworking and efficient team? Likely not.
"If there's a minnow in the group, it's Honduras," says Los Catrachos defender Maynor Figueroa with refreshing candor. Playing a style that stresses speed, short passes and ball possession, Honduras averaged 1.78 goals during qualifying, including seven in nine games by 36-year-old striker Carlos Pavon. Tireless box-to-box midfielder Wilson Palacios of Tottenham is the team's best player. Los Catrachos's first World Cup appearance since 1982 is likely to be brief, but they can play spectacularly entertaining soccer, even in losses. So enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.
Advancing: Spain, Chile
KEY MATCH • Chile vs. Honduras
June 16, Nelspruit
Spain-Chile on June 25 offers world-class finishers and household names, but the pivotal group game is nine days earlier. Both teams play an all-or-nothing style, and if tiny Honduras can draw or pull off the upset, the fight for second place becomes a crazy free-for-all.