“Eat the World Cup,” King Felipe VI of Spain said. It sounded like a daft idea — it’s 37 centimetres high, weighs six kilos, is made of gold and malachite likely to break your teeth and would be the most expensive meal you’ve ever had — but you knew what he meant. And so, more importantly, did they. Spain’s players stood in a semi-circle on the grass and applauded the royal visitor.
Up at Las Rozas, the national team’s home some 25 kilometres north-west of Madrid, there was one day to go before departure to Krasnodar and it was protocol time. Official suits to be measured up, presentations to be conducted and people to meet; the usual obligations. In addition, Andres Iniesta was awarded one of the Spanish state’s most prestigious medals, the Gran Cruz de la Real Orden de Merito Deportivo.
The new president of the federation came, Luis Rubiales, as did the new president of the government, Pedro Sanchez; between them, they can barely muster a week in their jobs. The new minister for culture and sport, was also there, Maxim Huerta, who once said he hated sport. And then came the King.
“Eat the World Cup, so that we can all celebrate a long time,” he said. He was handed a shirt with his name and number on the back. Felipe and VI. “Your run will be extraordinary,” Sanchez added. And, away from the cameras and the protocol, the formal greetings and the acts, the charities and the sponsors, there’s a growing feeling that, you know what? It just might be. There is a sense that Spain might just be back.
There was a reminder of disappointment at Brazil 2014 and France 2016 from Iniesta, but it came as a necessary warning — a means of keeping their feet on the ground — rather than a gloomy prediction. Spain know how fast things can go wrong: They did not even get out of the group four years ago and, while they made the knockout rounds at the Euros, they knew the real failure had come in the last, inexplicable and inexcusable group game. They led, then missed a penalty and somehow lost 2-1 to Croatia, which spat them out in the other half of the draw, with Italy awaiting.
Portugal won that tournament; no one in Spain thinks they were worse than their neighbours, with whom they have been drawn in Group B in Russia, so a sense of lost opportunity drives them. But they know that, if they assume they are better, trouble lies ahead.
There is a quiet confidence. In the press room, along the corridor from where portraits cover the walls of every Spain international there has been, they have been asked repeatedly the standard question: Are Spain favourites? Usually it is wasted, but not always. Iago Aspas was cautious this week; sitting alongside him, Yeray Alvarez — one of several young players called in to train, while the squad awaited the arrival of Real Madrid’s European champions — was not. “Yes,” he said. Others didn’t say it, but some thought it.
Upon their arrival in Russia on Thursday, a giant mural of Sergio Ramos awaited. This will be home for the next two-and-a-half weeks at least and most believe they could be there for more like six. Spain look at other sides and do not fear them; they look at the draw and trace a line through it from first place in the group, not second. There are plenty of teams who can compete but there is no one at the World Cup, in principle, who is just better.
There is renewed assuredness about Spain, a mix that appears to work. The identity remains, even if its application is a little different and there’s been a freshening up; things feel a little different, even as they remain the same. Spain are still a side that aspire to dominate possession and few will be able to compete with them for the ball.
They will look familiar and not just in the faces, although four players — Ramos, Iniesta, David Silva and Sergio Busquets — have over 100 caps, as will Gerard Pique by the end of the World Cup. But all of them will start and they’re not clinging on, looking past it or lingering as might have happened in the past. With none of them does it feel like this is a tournament too far, even if for most of them it will be the last.
Then comes another generation. It is true that there is a leap between one and the other; Jordi Alba (61) and Koke (39) are the only outfield players somewhere in the middle. Thiago’s injuries mean he still feels a little like a player in waiting, while 27-cap Isco has an increasingly central, established role. Expect him to start in Russia.
It is also true that the younger members of the squad might not appear to have quite the level of the Spanish generation, but there is talent there and, besides, the generation will occupy six of the 11 places. Add David De Gea, Koke, Isco and Dani Carvajal and the line-up is formidable. Beyond that, Marco Asensio has 11 caps and is a special talent; Lucas Vazquez has six. Both could play significant roles.
If Carvajal doesn’t recover from the injury he suffered in the Champions League final – Spain can make a change up until 24 hours before their first game and have retained Rodri from Villarreal and Madrid’s Jesus Vallejo from Madrid as cover — then Alvaro Odriozola will play at right-back. He has just three caps, yet that does not necessarily feel like a problem: His inclusion would maintain an offensive approach and he scored against Switzerland last weekend.
But with that comes the one doubt. His was the only goal Spain scored in a 1-1 draw and, while it was only a friendly, while not everyone was available, while the last time they got together they hammered Argentina 6-1, that is a familiar issue. Everywhere looks settled, clear, a guarantee except, perhaps, up front?
There is no David Villa. Instead, there is Aspas, Rodrigo and Diego Costa. All three offer different qualities: Aspas is perhaps most similar to Vill, and has been superb this season, while Costa is terrifying at his best. The question may be: Can he be at his best in a team like this?
The debate surrounds whether Costa’s style suits Spain. Manager Julen Lopetegui is convinced that it can, although he also admitted that he hasn’t yet made up his mind who will play up front. Some miss Alvaro Morata, yet this shouldn’t be seen as a Costa thing; with Spain, there’s always a debate over the striker but, in a way, it is more about the style.
Spain play in a way that doesn’t make life easy for traditional front men and sometimes doesn’t need them. If they can add something, it could be incredible, but there is a simpler request: Fit in. Indeed, the option of using a false nine also exists. Isco played the role superbly in qualifying vs. Italy and also scored a hat trick against Argentina.
There was no striker the last time Spain reached an international final and that one — the Euro 2012 decider against Italy — finished 4-0. Back then, la seleccion never lost, back then they were world champions. Eight years on, they want it back. The hunger is there again; time to “eat” the World Cup.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.