RIO DE JANEIRO – When Spain returns for the World Cup next year, it will know it's back in Brazil for the world's biggest sporting event when it steps onto the pitch and is met with the following welcome from a stadium full of soccer-mad Brazilians.
The defending world and European champions have played two games here at the Confederations Cup, and each time they have been greeted with nothing but the Southern hospitality of a North Carolina Tar Heel at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Turns out, Brazilians don't care much for the way Spain plays. The way the locals explain it, Brazilians come to see the show – the crowd-pleasing one-on-one dribbling and the spectacular, world-class strikes into the back of the net. They're not fond of the ballet of Spain and its long stretches of patience-testing possession and pretty precision passing. It's just not the Brazilians' cup of cha mate.
But there is something more to the jeering of the world's top-ranked team than just loud public disapproval of one's soccer aesthetics. And the distinction could easily be drawn Thursday when the sacrificial lambs of Tahiti, a team with just one professional player, met the millionaire professionals of Spain, on a warm, pleasant late afternoon at iconic Maracana Stadium.
The Brazilian fans booed when Spain scored, and they booed when Spain chose not to score by working the ball around the pitch with its trademark pinball passing. The Spanish ended up with a 10-0 victory that easily could've been 15-0, but in truth, they couldn't win. Not in the eyes of these naysayers.
The fact that Brazil, the old standard of international soccer excellence, can be so peeved about Spain, the new standard of international soccer excellence, can only mean one thing about the Spanish and their dynastic reign: They are the new bad guys – the national team that everyone loves to hate. It just took this Confederations Cup to confirm that this new elite status had gone global.
Oh, you think Europeans aren't tired of seeing championship confetti fall on the Spanish? After watching Spain's back-to-back title runs at the Euros, you bet they are.
Spain has the perfect coach to be the villain, too. Vincente Del Bosque is renowned for getting the Spanish superstars to buy into the team concept, winning major championships and never ever allowing anyone to see him smile. He is also Belichickian in his belief of continuing to play as if it's a one-score game, even if it's at the expense of the world's 138th-ranked team full of ordinary Joes and 9-to-5'ers, and even if the margin is approaching double digits.
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Asked why he chose not to call off the dogs against Tahiti, Del Bosque dismissed any notion of running up the score by saying, "Well, they've been champions of Oceania … They were worthy opponents."
It wasn't long ago when La Roja were the Boston Red Sox (the 1919-2003 BoSox). They were perennial contenders who underachieved at every major competition until their luck changed at the 2008 European Championships. They outlasted Italy in a memorable quarterfinal penalty shootout (4-2), routed Russia in the semifinals 3-0, then beat Germany 1-0 in the final. Suddenly, a country that hadn't won a major trophy in 44 years was the king of Europe.
Spain added two more major tournament titles at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros to ascend to the top of international soccer. This national team success coinciding with Barcelona's dominance at club level is well-documented, with plenty of Blaugrana dotting the Spanish rosters. For this Confederations Cup, nine players call Camp Nou home.
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It's not easy keeping all that talent on Team Spain happy. But the hard-to-please Del Bosque has managed to do so.
"We should not think of what we have achieved in the past," he said. "We must look ahead."
Sports are always better when there's a dominant team to knock off. That's why soccer fans should embrace this bad guy label for Spain. Likewise, Del Bosque and his crew should embrace their new rep. Nothing keeps a champion motivated like an us-against-the-world mentality.
So congratulations, Spanish national team. You've made it. You are the evil empire of international soccer.
And if you forget, don't worry. When you come back for the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian fans will remind you every chance they get.
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