The World Cup’s almost here – excited? Any World Cup brings a sense of anticipation and excitement, no matter which country or continent it’s played in. South Africa is not a country I know well so there will be a new culture to discover, as much as is possible when playing in a tournament. It’s important to disconnect a bit, savour the travel and fight boredom in the hotel, and being in an entirely new culture will help do that.
Are Spain better now than when they won Euro 2008?
We are stronger, it’s true. This group of players knows we are capable of winning more than just the Euros. To win a World Cup requires each of us to consciously raise our level and we started that right after the Euros. We won every game in qualifying, which tells its own story. The toughest thing once you achieve a big victory in football is keeping the mentality right. But that’s not an area where this squad can be faulted.
Spain are one of the favourites. Does this bring added pressure?
Pressure comes with the territory if you want to win. What I feel, ahead of this World Cup, is responsibility to do well for ourselves and for the country. Victory was a sweet taste for all of us two years ago. We want it again.
How does Vincente Del Bosque compare to Luis Aragones, who led you to victory at the Euros?
Everyone has their own style in football but it’s fair to say that Del Bosque is a bit more laid back – a bit calmer. He expresses himself differently. Aragones was more impetuous; stronger in what he said – you cannot help but learn from being around him and from his vast experience. Del Bosque didn’t try to change the group or its collective personality, but to make slight adjustments instead.
How different are the roles you are asked to play for Spain and Barcelona?
There isn’t all that much difference really. Vicente Del Bosque wants his team to win and play well, so it makes sense to keep on doing what you do well for your club side.
How much does it help to play with Xavi for club and country?
It’s a really big deal. We know and like each other, we’ve played together for years at Barcelona – and now Spain – and sometimes you don’t need to think or look to know where he will be or what he’s going to do. But we have also benefited that Cesc, Silva, Mata, Villa, Xabi and so on – the style of all the players fits together so well. We share a mentality and that’s where the biggest benefit comes.
You mentioned Cesc Fabregas. UK fans are amazed he’s not an automatic starter for Spain. What’s it like having a player like him breathing down your neck?
We don’t view each other as rivals or look over our shoulder all the time. You train hard, give it your all each day and then leave it up to the coach to choose the side.
You also mentioned Xabi Alonso. What has he, along with another recently established starter, Gerard Pique, brought to the side?
Gery is an important player in spite of his youth. Above all, he possesses the rare ability to play the ball out from the back elegantly and creatively. Xabi is simply one of the world’s best. When he’s in the team he’ll dominate the tempo of play. He’s got pinpoint long passing, can hit dozens of short accurate passes and I don’t doubt that playing in England helped his game.
While a number of your Barça team-mates will be aiding Spain’s cause, Lionel Messi could undo it all. Can he win the World Cup for Argentina single-handedly?
No one can win a World Cup on their own. Messi needs the team to function around him just as much as the Argentine team needs him to make it special. This isn’t tennis! It’s a team sport – and Leo knows that very well. Any great player needs a canvas to paint his pictures on and that is the work of the team. Having said all that, he is in a great moment of his career right now and timing can be important in sport.
And other than Argentina, which teams do you need to be wary of?
Italy are champions and they always feed off pride and motivation at the important time. Brazil… well, I don’t think I have to explain that one. They are big favourites in my mind. And I think England are genuinely stronger now. In Spain we have a lot of respect for Fabio Capello as a coach. England clearly don’t concede many goals and they’ve become harder to play against.
Finally, Wayne Rooney described you as the best player in the world after the Champions League final last season. How did that make you feel?
If I said that I wasn’t pleased then I’d be lying. It's nice to hear but the best thing is that the description comes from a top, top player and an important footballer. From a guy like Wayne Rooney, it says a lot. I could just as easily have said the same thing about him and his talents. Wayne has always impressed me: he works so unbelievably hard for the team and, above that, he has so much quality.
Interview: June 2010.