Defining moment for Spain's golden generation
World Cup 2010: Johannesburg
"The day Spain begin winning, they won't stop."
How true Zinedine Zidane's words are beginning to sound. Two years after the Spanish ended 44 years of hurt by captivating a continent to win Euro 2008, the real 'Golden Generation' stands on the brink of World Cup immortality as they prepare to face the Netherlands in Sunday's final in Johannesburg.
Zidane, who represented Spanish giants Real Madrid with such distinction between 2001 and 2006, was not merely speculating when he made his bold statement a few years back. The French master was trying to explain that Spain, despite possessing a superbly talented crop of players, were perhaps being held back by a lack of confidence caused by years of failure.
As captain Iker Casillas held aloft the Henri Delauney Trophy in Vienna in 2008, the denouement of a European Championship that Spain had stylishly swaggered through from start to finish, the self-doubt that for so long had nagged away at the soul of Spanish football disappeared and in its place a team of winners was born.
Former Spain captain Fernando Hierro, now a Spanish Football Federation director, believes that moment was the turning point. "What has changed is the mentality," he enthused. "After 44 years, Spain are European champions. This is showing now in the World Cup. The team now has momentum, but what the win in 2008 has done is give the team more confidence. They have matured as well."
Spain's 2010 World Cup campaign, which started with a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of unfancied Switzerland and has seen them win all three knockout stage games 1-0 thanks to second-half goals, is proof if any were needed that Vicente del Bosque's team has the mental fortitude required to go with their star quality.
After all, few would claim that the European champions have been at their best since they landed in South Africa. With their usually fluid style slightly off kilter, they have shown a steely resolve and huge amount of patience to get the job done.
Rather than passing pretty patterns around their opponents as they did two years ago in Austria and Switzerland, Spain's now famous ability to keep the ball has worn down Portugal, Paraguay and Germany, with their winning goals coming in the 63rd, 82nd and 73rd minutes respectively
Germany, who had demolished England and Argentina in previous knockout rounds, could not get the ball off Spain for long enough to hurt them, as vanquished coach Joachim Loew conceded. "They are the masters of the game," he commented. "You can see it in every pass. They can hardly be beaten. They are extremely calm and convincing. Spain were just better than we were and they deserved to win."
Winning is something this group of players has grown accustomed to. With a remarkable 50 victories from 54 games and silverware from a major tournament already in their locker, Spain can justifiably lay claim to being the best team in the world in recent years.
What they have proved they can do over the past four weeks in South Africa is win when they are not at their best, something former Spain midfielder Gaizka Mendieta - who was in the 2002 side that crashed out at the quarter-final stage on penalties to co-hosts South Korea - has stessed should not be overlooked.
"They have had a lot of pressure throughout the tournament, especially after losing the opening game," reflcted Mendieta. "They have had to win every match since and, though they didn't start off at their best, they have got better with every game.
"I honestly think they can play their best football in the final against the Dutch. They have still managed to play some beautiful football under a lot of pressure, so we have to believe they can do it on Sunday."
Spain have attracted criticism for not going to a 'Plan B' when their 'tiki-taka' passing game does not work, but much of the team - often labelled 'Generation Barca' - have been brought up to believe that there is no alternative.
If Xavi once called himself a "child of the (Barca) system", in Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and especially Andres Iniesta, he has no shortage of brothers in arms when playing for the national team.
Xavi and Iniesta have enjoyed their fair share of praise in recent years but they have also often found themselves on the flip side of the coin.
When Barcelona drew two blanks in their Champions League semi-final against Manchester United in 2008 and then bowed out against 10-man Inter Milan despite having 76% possession in April, the desire to always try to score the 'perfect goal' was bemoaned.
But for club and country, the mandate remains the same. Before their European final against Barcelona in May 2009, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson warned that "Xavi and Iniesta get you on that carousel and leave you dizzy".
After the Barca boys helped to grind down Germany on Wednesday, Loew was singing from the same hymn sheet. "They circulate the ball well and you just can't keep up with them," he added. "We couldn't play the way we like to."
Spanish football expert Guillem Balague has said that the substitutes available to Del Bosque are as crucial as the starting XI. "When you look at the bench, everyone apart from the reserve keepers and Raul Albiol can come on and change a game," Balague told me. "On Sunday, their most important players could be 12, 13, 14. When the opposition has spent 70 minutes chasing the ball, that's when fresh legs can be decisive."
If the Netherlands fall at the World Cup final hurdle for the third time on Sunday, they will have their most famous son to blame for defeat. It is Johan Cruyff who created the blueprint for 'Generation Barca', with his spell as coach at the Catalan club between1988 and 1996 laying the foundations that has enabled the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to blossom.
Cruyff is better placed than anyone to predict the outcome of Sunday's showpiece. "I know the whole of Holland wanted to play Germany in the final, because they fear Spain will simply keep the ball for 90 minutes. Their only chance is if Spain fail to take their opportunities, like they did against Germany.
"It is Spain's game to lose, but I will take intense joy if they win it."
Cruyff wouldn't be the only one. But, 36 years after his magical Dutch team's defining defeat at the hands of Germany, can arguably the greatest team of its generation, Spain, avoid the same fate?