JOHANNESBURG -- They were supposed to define this World Cup, set all the standards, but first Spain had to survive. It was proving beautiful but also arduous work and it threatened to be some time before their coach Vincente del Bosque displayed the kind of elation already shown by his leading rivals, Dunga of Brazil and Diego Maradona of Argentina and the fantasy world.
But then suddenly here Monday, the man with a jaw line set so grimly it might have been drawn from the sierra, had quite a few reasons to relax a little with the 2-0 defeat of Honduras.
One was provided by David Villa, the new man at Barcelona who seemed so blissfully unaware that the team who for so long had been expected to light up the football world were in the middle of a crisis of confidence and perhaps even will.
The other came with instant confirmation that in Cesc Fabregas Spain, have someone who makes their midfield strength look ridiculously fertile when he takes his first step off the bench.
Fabregas might have scored within a minute but for the desperate clearance by a Honduran defender but then Villa had already carved a huge edge off the Spanish fear that they might become one of the game's unfinished masterpieces.
It could still happen, of course, but Villa calmed the worst fears with a superb goal in the seventh minute, another six minutes into the second half and the kind of authority which went missing so mysteriously in his new arena of Nou Camp at the end of the season.
Villa might have moved to within two goals of the all-time Spanish mark set by Raul at 44 goals had he converted a penalty, but his work was essentially done.
Spain once again looked like a team who could not only decorate the field more artistically than any rivals but also display a breath-taking bite in front of goal. However, if the latter talent was re-established it was no doubt not as prolifically applied as the dour coach would have liked.
He had two main worries among his riches. Spain goes into its final group game against a Chile team who have done its little bit to underline the depth of the South American challenge here with the nagging fear of ambush, however freakishly applied, and with the likelihood that their conquerors Switzerland are likely to reach the six-point mark against Honduras.
This alone would be enough to bring a touch of concern to a rather fatalistic Spanish football man (he was, after all fired after winning the European Cup) but there is the additional concern that Fernando Torres is plainly some way short of the touch that made him arguably the best striker on earth for much of last season.
Torres had two chances to swell the Spanish confidence but each time he betrayed an uncertainty that might have passed notice in lesser figures but in his case shrieked out some alarm about the time he has to reach his most killing standard.
Of course there is such depth in this team that optimism cannot ever be too far away. When Xavi left, after some familiar, driving rhythm, there was Fabregas, the patient, potentially sublime acolyte to the best midfield unit in the business and, waiting a small notch from full fitness, there is Andreas Iniesta.
These are glories that formed the backcloth to a formal victory over the brave, scrappy little football nation of Honduras, for whom Wilson Palacious must sometimes have felt in need of a shot of oxygen, and when it was over everyone was entitled to believe that this tournament had acquired, rather late, its most exciting dimension.
However, if it seemed like a solid asset it was also one that came without any ultimate guarantees. The creativity of Spain sometimes dazzled the eyes but, still, the easy destruction was missing.
Del Bosque had reason to feel like the most blessed of coaches but also one wary of the curse that has afflicted his nation so many times at this ultimate level. It is of every fulfilment but the one that comes to winners, teams who are haunted by the fear that the great prize will probably escape them.
Spain played enough football of the highest quality to subdue the worry, but be sure it will be back when Chile provide the opposition. The granite jaw is going to be pretty fixed for some time yet.
Meanwhile, the rest of football can only wait with some apprehension as the Spanish artists strive to find their perfect expression.
-- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.