JOHANNESBURG -- On Sunday, Spain and the Netherlands will play to put their name on the World Cup for the first time.
For Spain, the journey has been long and arduous and fraught with mental anguish. Spain, for years, would present itself at the start of a tournament as the team with the most talent and inevitably it would fall short, unable to overcome obstacles.
Spain qualified for 12 World Cups before this one but managed to advance beyond the quarterfinals only once, in 1950. It was a strange record for a team that boasted two of the best teams in the world -- Real Madrid and Barcelona, teams that made up the majority of the national team.
It earned the reputation of choker.
In 2008, Spain was one of the favourites at Euro 2008. They played magnificently through the group stages. Watching it play was like watching the quality of some of the top Brazilians teams.
Then came their confrontation with Italy, a team that had not played well but a team that no matter whether it was good or bad, had a knack for finding ways to win. It was the kind of team Spain had a habit of finding ways to lose to.
And this would be one of those challenges many expected Spain to fail. But on June 22, 2008, the new Spain was born.
It was a terrible game, as one newspaper columnist wrote that if it had been a bullfight, the bull would have died of bored. But Italy had taken the best team in the tournament and stretched them to extra time then penalties.
Spain, before that day, had faced kicks from the penalty spot three times in quarterfinals. Three times it had lost. It lost to Belgium in 1986 in the World Cup, to England in Euro 96 and South Korea in the 2002 World Cup.
If Spain had failed, who knows where it would be today. But the Spaniards held their nerve and Cesc Fabregas drilled the winning penalty past Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Spain had not won against Italy in a competitive match in 88 years and a penalty shoot-out in 24 years.
It is difficult to explain what happened to Spanish football at that moment. Was it like a giant weight had been lifted from their shoulders? Was it the moment Spain relished it was good enough to win?
One thing was obvious -- Spain had grown in confidence and belief in its own ability. There were those who still expected Spain to fail, especially in the final against Germany.
But Spain never wavered. It defeated Germany 1-0 in 2008 playing the same kind of keep-away with precision passing it did in beating Germany 1-0 in the World Cup semifinal.
"I think winning Euro gave Spain great confidence," said Germany manager Joachim Loew. "From that point, they have been playing together for two or three years. They know each other and are the best team in the world."
Where did the change come from? The reality is the players who are so successful today are not much different than the players who played in years gone by. The talent level is virtually the same.
What is different is the atmosphere in the dressing room, the compatibility on the pitch and a toughness that was non-existant before. Who gets the credit?
Perhaps, it should go to the manager before Vicenti del Bosque. Luis Aragones was as tough as nails. When he cracked a smile, it was reason for a national holiday. When he took over the team, there were divided loyalties in the dressing room. There was Real Madrid against Barcelona players, Catalans against Basques. The legendary Raul was always a member of the Spanish national team whether he deserved to be or not.
Aragones would have none of that. He didn't name Raul to the team and he refused to have a divided dressing room at Euro. He added a spine to the Spanish body.
The result is obvious. Since Euro, Spain has toughened up. It doesn't only win games that are free-flowing and open. It wins games against tough opponents who don't give an inch.
The win against Germany on Wednesday in the semifinal was probably the biggest in Spanish football history.
But their win on June 22, 2008, made Spain a legitimate football power.