Spain hopes history doesn't repeat

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:02 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG – It was dragged out of the piles of rubble left behind by the wrath of February’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, a reminder of the 500 souls who lost their lives in the heart-wrenching tragedy that ravaged their homeland.

Indeed, if the Chilean national team requires a beacon of perspective for its huge showdown against World Cup favourites Spain Friday, it needs only to look at the filthy, tattered flag that stands nearby on the practice field every day.

“It’s an extra motivation to go to on to the pitch and make sure that our work gives a little joy after what happened,” defender Waldo Ponce told reporters, referring to the flag.

Having endured the devastation left behind by Mother Nature’s fury, many Chileans back home look to the soccer team as a way to momentarily forget their problems, a reason to escape into a two-hour window of corner kicks, yellow cards and, hopefully, goals for Chile.

Of course, seeing their heroes knock one of the tournament heavyweights out of the competition wouldn’t be bad either.

Heading into the final day of competition, Chile leads Group H with six points, while Spain and Switzerland follow at three points apiece. Should Spain defeat Chile and the Swiss dispose of a struggling Honduras, there will be a three-way deadlock at the top. Goal differential likely will decide which two teams advance.

When the soccer world congregated in South Africa, no one figured Spain would have any problems breezing their way deep into the tournament. As the champions of Euro 2008, the Spanish believed they finally had shed their image of being underachievers.

That’s the polite way of putting it.

Their detractors would choose the word “chokers” as a more appropriate term.

Either way, if Spain is sent packing Friday, it won’t be a pretty scene back home.

This is a side many consider to have an all-star roster. Some managers would drool just to have one or two players the calibre of Spain’s bench warmers.

Of course, in South Africa 2010, anything can happen.

It already has.

If the Spanish need any grounds for fear, they only need look at the fate that befell defending World Cup champions Italy at Ellis Park Thursday.

The moment the whistle blew on the Azzurri’s controversial 3-2 defeat at the hands of Slovakia, it was already being referred to as one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

Chile is a far more talented side than Slovakia, so a victory by the South Americans over Spain would not be much of a shock.

But imagine a tournament in which both Italy and Spain were eliminated after the group stage?

Brace yourselves. It could happen.

The Spanish know what’s at stake. They are fully aware the uphill climb would be steep after their stunning 1-0 opening-game loss to the Swiss.

“For us it’s clear what we have to do. We have to beat Chile,” midfielder Andres Iniesta said.

“We’ve got a clear idea about what we need to do and we’re confident of reaching the next round. Nothing else is important.”

Iniesta injured his right leg in the heart-wrenching loss to Switzerland and missed the team’s second contest, a 2-0 victory over Honduras. But now he’s ready to return, a huge boost for a team that needs all the positives it can get.

Striker Fernando Torres will be key as well. The Liverpool star looked rusty against Honduras, his first full game since coming off knee surgery.

When the Spanish take the pitch in Pretoria, they’ll know previous World Cup champions Italy and France already have been sent packing. They’ll also be aware they are going up against an opponent in Chile that is attempting to help wipe away the scars of a horrible natural disaster by giving its supporters back home something to smile about.

Either way, Spain had better heed the lessons learned from the historical Italian loss that took place here in Johannesburg.

Or else.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos