Spain striving to turn domestic dominance into WC glory
Spain men's national team (Getty Images)
Madrid - Spain's recent dominance in club competitions has masked a period of underachievement at international level, but coach Julen Lopetegui believes failure leaves his side more determined than ever to win the World Cup.
Spanish teams have claimed the last five Champions League titles - the latest came when Real Madrid beat Liverpool on Saturday - and five of the last seven Europa Leagues.
But as Real, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have thrived, the national team's aura of invincibility, built up by a trio of major triumphs, has melted away.
In 2014, Spain crashed out in the group stage of the World Cup after being ripped apart by the Netherlands and overrun by Chile. In 2016, they reached the knock-out stage of the European Championship but were outplayed by Italy and fortunate even to escape a more emphatic defeat than 2-0.
It leaves the 2010 world champions with a reputation to repair this summer, even while most observers have them marked as one of the outstanding favourites in Russia.
"You earn the title of favourite when you win," Lopetegui said in an exclusive interview with AFP.
"It's not when people say you're a favourite because of past achievements, it's when you show it on the pitch.
"Spanish football has lived through an extraordinary, historic period in 2008, 2010 and 2012, but after that the team has not found the same consistency or success.
'We are humble'
"We have to grow again as a team. We have the biggest ambitions but we are also very aware that we arrive at this World Cup feeling humble and wanting to prove ourselves."
After replacing Vicente del Bosque, who quit following Spain's exit two years ago, Lopetegui was tasked with a process of renewal.
His job was to jettison some of the old guard and rejuvenate others, while at the same time introducing younger faces to usher in Spain's next generation.
Del Bosque had already started the process. From those that played in the Euro 2012 final, Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata are out.
Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Andres Iniesta remain. The ones to front a fresh era are David de Gea, Marco Asensio, Isco, Koke and Thiago Alcantara.
But of those, only De Gea is sure to start the first group game against Portugal on June 15. Isco could complete the front three alongside Diego Costa and David Silva, while Koke and Thiago will likely fight it out for the last spot in midfield.
It is the old faces - Ramos, Pique, Busquets, Iniesta, Silva - that will still form the core.
"There is no doubt they still have a lot to contribute," said Lopetegui, a former goalkeeper who last week extended his contract until 2020.
"If not, they would not be at the level they are at with their clubs and with us. What we will try is to blend them with those from the young and new generation.
"We have to try to mix them into a competitive team and a team that can deliver the football we want."
If, as expected, Spain progress from Group B, which also features Morocco and Iran, they could match up with Uruguay or Egypt, and Mohamed Salah, in the last 16.
In the quarter-finals, it could be Lionel Messi's Argentina, or France.
"When you come from an elimination like in 2016, the levels of ambition may be different," Lopetegui said.
"But I do have the feeling people in Spain are excited, that is true, and we are not going to stop anyone from feeling that excitement.
"We know what we have to do, the work we have to put in under the radar to arrive well-prepared. We can't look too far ahead. To win the World Cup, you win it one bit at a time."