For decades, superstitious Spanish football fans have tried all manner of methods to lift the misfortune that has befallen their national team. Prayers and incantation, and even rumors of animal sacrifice, regularly surface whenever Spain undertakes a bid to win a major tournament.
Because of those failed campaigns, which have ended in various forms of doom and frustration since the country's only major victory (on home soil in the 1964 European Championship), the Spanish public has approached Sunday's Euro 2008 quarterfinal against Italy with trepidation rather than wide-eyed hope.
Even though Luis Aragones' side cruised through Group D with three straight wins and faces an Italian team that needed a missed penalty by Romania's Adrian Mutu to avoid elimination, Spain has had its dreams crushed too many times to start believing just yet. And for a country blessed with generations of superb players, one of the world's finest leagues and a rich and beautiful football history, the countless missteps on the big stage are seen as an embarrassment.
Invariably, the pressure of expectation has been too much for Spain's players, and each successive squad has felt the burden of their predecessors' folly. It has been called a curse and a jinx, and everything from poor coaching to undisciplined players to the expressive national character has been blamed.
Both refuse to accept all the ancient voodoo and current negativity. Both don't care much for history or for the established order, and unlike their countrymen back home, neither cares that Spain has never beaten Italy in a World Cup or European Championship.
No Spaniard was untouched by the country's painful capitulation at the 2006 World Cup, at Euro 2004, at the 2002 World Cup, at Euro 2000, at … well, you get the picture. However, Torres and Villa feel those failures have no bearing on the present or future.
Torres is used to bucking trends. He took the highly unusual step of taking a pay cut in order to leave Atletico Madrid and join Liverpool – the English club he grew up idolizing, not one of the giant teams from his own homeland – and he continued to be something of a maverick with his brimming confidence over Sunday's showdown.
"Given their past record, they should be favorites," Torres said of the Italians, "but we have absolutely no fear of them."
As for Villa, the Valencia front man and unflappable son of a coal miner, he has already shown himself to be made of stern stuff.
He is the one who inherited the No. 7 shirt of Raul when the favorite son of Spanish football was left out of the squad in controversial circumstances. Villa quickly made his mark on these Euros with a hat trick against Russia. He then scored the winning goal late against Sweden.
"I don't think about what Spain has or has not won in the past," said Villa, a transfer target for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and several other big clubs this summer. "All I am worried about is what this Spain team can win and trying to get us there."
The right mentality can only get the Spanish so far, however. They will still need to play an inspired game to get past Roberto Donadoni's team, which is determined to make the most of what the Italian coach himself described as a "second chance."
What Spain has to do is to make sure that, if it is beaten, it is by Italy and not, like so many times before, by themselves.
- Fernando Torres
- David Villa