FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The world’s finest national soccer team will attempt to settle a score against the unlikely opponent that helped propel it to World Cup glory.
Spain has written its own glorious destiny recently, lifting the greatest prize of all last summer to build on their European title two years earlier, and ending decades of underachievement and disappointment for such a proud soccer nation.
Yet while the surge Spain enjoyed during the World Cup in South Africa – sweeping aside heavyweight opponents Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands – represented an unstoppable juggernaut, key members of the squad believe its foundations were laid in a surprising failure a year earlier.
When Spain takes on the United States at Gillette Stadium on Saturday it will be the first time the teams have met since June 24, 2009, when the Americans pulled off a monumental upset by emerging as a 2-0 winner in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup.
So while the game in Foxborough is technically a friendly, don’t expect too many niceties when the sides square off. The Confederations Cup result stopped Spain’s 35-match unbeaten streak in its tracks, yet midfield star Xabi Alonso told Yahoo! Sports on Friday that without it history may have turned out differently.
“It was actually very important for us,” Alonso said. “It was very useful, even though we were very disappointed at the time.
“It made us see that you can’t afford to have a bad game because in world football there are teams who will punish you for it and beat you. It made us think, if we play like that in the World Cup it could mean that we would no longer have a chance to reach our dream.
“It set our focus, and from that time I felt we were very strong mentally. Maybe it added something to us as a team, having suffered something disappointing and realized how to deal with it.”
That game in Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium looked to be a huge mismatch. The United States had scraped though the group stage of the Confederations Cup, an event featuring all of FIFA’s regional champions, while Spain looked unstoppable in winning its own group.
But goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey and a heroic defensive effort clinched the win, although Michael Bradley was red carded for a crude late challenge. Some said the USA victory was a fluke, but it wasn’t. It was an upset that required, like most upsets, equal elements of fortune and circumstance.
“[The USA] won and they won with justice,” Alonso said. “They competed and played a great game, we were not at the top of ours. We took it the right way, we wished them good luck, we said well played and we promised ourselves we would learn from it. And we did.”
That night was a distant memory by the time the Spanish players were hoisting the trophy at Soccer City in Johannesburg a year later to cement their status as the sport’s pinnacle attraction.
With true star power and a wondrous style of passing that is close to technical perfection, Spain will enter the field Saturday as the undisputed world No.1 and with Spanish soccer on an all-time high following Barcelona’s swashbuckling victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final a week ago.
Much of the current work is aimed at preparing the team for next summer’s European championship in Poland and Ukraine, where victory would establish this side as arguably the greatest of all time.
“A lot of hard work and sacrifice has gone into getting us to this point,” said forward David Villa, who scored five goals at the World Cup and Barcelona’s third in its Champions League final. “We have the opportunity to make history, but it does not frighten us. We have belief and spirit and we will have a chance to live a dream again.”