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Spain can end Europe's historical failure

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Phil Minshull | 08:00 UK time, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tim Vickery said in his blog that there is one piece of information that will be cited time and time again ahead of next summer's Fifa World Cup finals.

Well, as if to fulfil his prophecy, here is that fact for you: since the World Cup started in 1930, no European nation has won the trophy on another continent.

The closest anyone has come to triumphing in the eight editions held beyond European frontiers was Italy, who lost on penalties to Brazil in that less-than-memorable 1994 final in Los Angeles' Rose Bowl.

However, many pundits, including myself, if I can elevate myself into such company, believe that particular piece of knowledge will become redundant after South Africa.

Seven of the top nine teams in the world, at least according to Fifa, are European and all have made it through to the finals. A betting man would suggest those are very good odds indeed if you want to put your money on a European winner.

Some of those teams, like Spain, the Netherlands and England reached the finals with relative ease. Others, notably Portugal and France made life much more difficult for themselves and only just scraped through via the play-offs.

Of course, my patriotic leanings desperately want England to finally win the World Cup again but, using my head rather than my heart, I think it will be my adopted home Spain that achieves the honours in South Africa.

torres.jpgLiverpool striker Fernando Torres is a key member of Vicente del Bosque's side

They won the 2008 Uefa European Championship in some style and since their memorable 1-0 victory over Germany, the team have grown even further.

"We continue to feel more comfortable with each other. It's like playing for a club. We are now a good team and there's a lot of confidence among the players," reflected Real Madrid and former Liverpool playmaker Xavi Alonso.

Alonso was on that bench in the final but has since become on of the first names on the team sheet of Spain coach Vicente del Bosque after he took over from the triumphant Luis Aragones.

Nevertheless, Spain are likely to start their first match in South Africa with eight or nine of the men who also started in Vienna's Ernst Happel stadium.

In fact, the entire squad that goes to South Africa will be very similar to that which ended Spain's 44-year drought at major international championships and managed to shrug off their mantle of being Europe's perennial underachievers.

Del Bosque has given debuts to nine players since that day in the Austrian capital but only four are likely to be included in the final 23 players that he takes to South Africa: the Barcelona pair of Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, Valencia's Juan Mata and perhaps a right-sided midfielder in the shape of either Sevilla's Jesus Navas or Valencia's Pablo Hernandez.

The Spanish statistics are impressive and persuasive if you are looking for a European team to win in South Africa.

In their 43 games since the start of 2007, the first match in that period being their 1-0 win over England, Spain have won 39 times - their only loss coming in that aberration against the United States in the Confederations Cup semi-finals this summer - they have scored 96 goals and only conceded 21.

By contrast, Brazil - who Fabio Capello considers the favourites and who said after England had lost 1-0 to them last month: "Spain are technically very good but their players are not as tough and don't defend as well as Brazil" - have only won 29 of their games in the same time frame.

Brazil's tally of goals scored and conceded doesn't match up to Spain either.

In the Fifa rankings released on 20 November, Spain leapfrogged over the five-time World Cup winners and regained the pole position they first achieved in the wake of their Euro 2008 triumph.

Critics of the rankings will be quick to point out that Spain received more than twice as many points for thrashing Bosnia 5-2 in a meaningless match in October, which was notionally a World Cup qualifier although all the placings had been decided, compared with their slick 2-1 win over Argentina that was allegedly a friendly in name despite seven names going in the referee's book.

Nevertheless, it all contributes to the impression that Spain are one of the favourites and a lot of countries will be hoping to avoid them when the final draw is made in Cape Town on Friday at 1700 GMT.

Even the web site of world governing body Fifa has abandoned all pretence of impartiality where Del Bosque's men are concerned after they notched up 10 straight wins during their qualifying campaign.

"On a scale of one to 10, Spain's performance in qualifying for the 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa can only be given top marks," commented Fifa.

If we are talking about European nations, it's impossible to dismiss the chances of holders Italy, who always seem to get better and better as World Cups progress.

Germany, likewise, should be formidable contenders in South Africa while the Netherlands effortlessly rattled off eight consecutive wins during their own qualifying campaign and coach Bert van Marwijk seems to have united the various warring dressing room factions that existed under the previous incumbent Marco van Basten.

However, I, and I'm sure many others, would agree with some of Aragones' parting words after Spain's European Championship win: "We have players who play well with an excellent touch and accurate passing. I think everyone who loves football, wants to see this type of play do well."

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