Forgotten history of near-misses and fumbles give Spain cause for positivity in Paris

There’s some selective memory when it comes to the Spanish national team and their grand triumphs of recent years. In fact, it’s a mind wipe of science fiction proportions.

While it’s true La Selección are reigning World and European Champions, the paths to winning these prizes haven't exactly been ones the players have skipped merrily along, humming Barbie Girl while clutching baskets stuffed with rose petals.

There have been more than a couple of moments when Spain have royally stuffed things up and looked like mere mortals. However, over the five years since the first of their back-to-back-to-back tournament victories, Spain have managed to prevail whenever they’ve wandered into a footballing poop patch. History suggests Spain shall do so again in Tuesday night's 'crunch' World Cup qualifier against France in Paris.

In 2008, Spain drew 0-0 with Italy in the quarter-finals of the European Championships and were a penalty shoot-out away from being bottling dark horses, all over again. Vicente Del Bosque’s side lost their opening match of the 2010 World Cup to Switzerland in an encounter similar to Friday's underwhelming draw against Finland. Spain then won the title with narrow 1-0 victories in the knock-out stages against Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Netherlands. The eventual triumph was well deserved, but it wasn't a case of a team sweeping away all before them. It was more grinding than galavanting.

Spain received another barrage of criticism for only drawing 1-1 with Italy in the group stages of Euro 2012, then again for needing a penalty shoot-out to squeeze past Portugal at the semi-final stage. They then creamed Italy in the final, one of the rare occasions that everything came together for the world's top-ranked side.

So when Sergio Ramos said on Monday that “football has no memory”, the Madrid defender was right, although he was referring to the way players must prove themselves again and again in the game, and that "the badge doesn’t win games". Ramos was also correct in his notion that, while Spain are repeated champions of everything, the voyage has never, ever been plain sailing and there have been plenty of slip-ups and wobbles along the way.

The Finland match was one of them. Although it may seem a little trite to say nobody would have raised an eyebrow at the Spanish showing had they won the game, this could certainly be said of Friday's match at Sporting’s El Molinón stadium. Yes, the performance was a touch below par and the players were wasteful in front of goal, but it was no different to many, many matches in which this Spain side have scraped victories without much comment. 

The problem is that the reigning World Champions have always had to deal both with very high expectations and very cluttered memories of the recent past. It’s the same situation in 2013 with Finland and France.

Perhaps being at the top for so long has left Spain needing a bit of danger in their lives to truly get the football juices flowing. A victory in France would put Del Bosque’s side in control of their own destiny for the remaining three matches of the qualifying group. Anything less than three points will leave La Roja hoping France drop points away to Belarus and Georgia. While the situation could be worrying for Spain, it’s unlikely to be critical, with the handy safety net of the play-offs acting as a fallback.

History suggests that at least a draw is on the cards for Spain, given it’s been 20 years since they lost a World Cup qualifying fixture. This leaves the flag-waving sections of the Madrid-based press caught in two minds about the contest. While there is an attempt to lift the spirits ahead of the game - the cover of Tuesday's Marca shows the Eiffel Tower in the colours of the Spanish flag - there’s still not quite the same tension a World Cup knock-out match would have, with the knowledge that there’s a number of second chances for Del Bosque’s side should things go wrong in Paris. “This team has won a lot of games, many more difficult than this one,” notes the editorial in AS.

This qualifying phase for the 2014 World Cup is simply following the pattern of Spain’s journeys over recent years. Everyone tends to remember the glorious arrival and the trophy-lifting, but they turn a blind eye to the wrong-turns, comedic stumbles and furious throwing of the map out the car window along the way.

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