Despite having arguably the greatest league in the world, Spain has always struggled in the international arena. While England’s failures at tournaments (and even qualification!) are well documented, it’s remarkable to think that the tag of underachievers has been held by the Spanish practically since their debut in the early 20th century. In particular, at the World Cup, the customary labelling of the Spanish (or La Selección, as they are known) as pre-tournament >favourites is invariably followed by their customary early departure from said tournament, despite fielding some of the greatest footballers to ever grace the field, from Luis Suarez to Raul.
Nevertheless, the nation lives on in hope, occasionally fuelled by moments of true brilliance from the team in red and blue, like their 1964 European Championships victory, hinting at the team’s capabilities in the past, the present and the future. Until they finally make their mark in a major tournament though, the stigma of underachievement will persist and prevent England’s stature falling that much further!
Created by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), La Selección made their debut in the international format in the 1920 Olympic Games in Belgium. Things started brightly as well, with the side only succumbing to the hosts and eventual winners in the quarter-final and actually picking up the silver medal due to Czechoslovakia’s disqualification from the tournament.
This successful away day was followed by the team’s first match at home in 1921, taking on the gold medal winners, Belgium, in Bilbao and defeating them 2-0. A series of largely positive friendly results climaxed with a remarkable 4-3 friendly victory against England in Madrid. Spain became the first side outside the British Isles to triumph against England.
Curiously, the Federation declined to enter the 1930 World Cup but would enlist four years later for the tournament in Italy. Again, the Spanish showed their quality, defeating the Brazilians 3-1 in the second round and only falling foul of the eventual victors Italy after a 1-0 replay. The omens looked decidedly positive for the Spanish side.
Political turmoil, recovery and the golden era
Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 put an end to hopes of further progress in the sport, devastating society to a near irreparable extent. Indeed, such were the consequences of the conflict that the Spanish side did not so much as play a competitive match until 14 years after its inception, sending a side to the World Cup in Brazil that year.
Remarkably, La Selección’s response was immediate and emphatic. In a tough group, which included the English, Spain swept aside all and sundry to win their group with maximum points, helped by the goalscoring exploits of Athletic Bilbao’s striker Telmo Zarraonaindía. Unfortunately, this run was not to continue, as a bizarre reversal in fortunes saw the Spanish collapse somewhat. Despite drawing with the ultimate winners of the competition, Uruguay, the Spanish were soundly trounced by the Brazilians 6-1 and then suffered defeat at the hands of the Swedish, finishing last in the final round. However, as the World Cup format in the final round was a group stage, the Spanish subsequently finished fourth in the tournament. This would prove to be their best finish in the competition.
Considering their long absence from the international game, this performance was certainly not a disaster. However, the side was then again sent into the wilderness for a decade, only re-emerging for the qualification stages of the 1958 World Cup, which ended in failure, and the 1960 European Nations’ Cup (later the European Championship) in France. The Spanish put on another fine performance at the tournament, beating the Polish 7-2 on aggregate in the eighth-finals, and only departed due to political reasons, with the side refusing to travel to the Soviet Union and compete against the USSR. Their showing was also notable for the involvement of the great Alfredo Di Stéfano, who acquired Spanish citizenship in 1956 and played for La Selección from 1957 until 1961.
Although the Spanish had ultimately failed in France, there were positive signs for the side which were built on after the appointment of José Villalonga in 1962. Formerly coach of Real Madrid and then Atlético Madrid, Villalonga’s tenure started poorly with an early exit from the 1962 World Cup in the first round (in which they found themselves in an exceptionally difficult group, containing Brazil and Czechoslovakia). However, the Spanish finally proved their mettle two years later at the 1964 European Nations’ Cup. In front of their home crowd in Spain and helped by the goals of Jesús María Pereda, La Selección were dominant. The side defeated the Romanians, the Northern Irish and the Republic of Ireland on its way to the final stages. Spain then took out the Hungarians 2-1 in extra time and the USSR by the same scoreline in front of 125,000 screaming fans in Madrid.
Disappointment, despair and disaster
Having subsequently qualified for the 1966 World Cup, the Spanish again showed their fragility in the competition, despite retaining much of the formerly victorious side. Departing in the first round after defeat at the hands of West Germany and Argentina, Villalonga was shown the door and so began another limp period for La Selección.
Only competing sporadically, the side were taken out by England in the 1968 European Championship and outright failed to qualify for another tournament until the 1976 European Championship in Yugoslavia. There were signs of improvement in that competition, as the Spanish worked their way to the quarter-finals and only lost, courtesy of a strong West German team, 3-1 on aggregate. Unfortunately, this was followed by yet more disappointment, as their return to the World Cup in 1978 was cut short in the first round group stage, and the subsequent European Championship in 1980 saw the Spanish finish last in the group stage.
The greatest disappointment, however, was yet to come. Coached by the former Real Madrid defender José Santamaría, the Spanish entered the World Cup in 1982 filled with confidence and, perhaps more importantly, as the host nation. Unfortunately, the team’s collapse bordered on the spectacular, and they barely qualified from a relatively weak group which included Honduras and Yugoslavia. The Spanish gave another poor showing in the second group stage and went out after defeat against West Germany and a draw against England. Needless to say, Santamaría took the blame and was duly sacked.
Appointing Miguel Muñoz as replacement, the Spanish bounced back somewhat in the 1984 European Championship in France. Remarkably finishing top of a group containing Portugal and West Germany, with a goal from Antonio Maceda bringing victory against the latter, La Selección reached the semi-finals against Denmark. After a penalty shoot-out victory in Lyon, the Spanish moved on to face the hosts in Paris. Despite coming up short against a Platini-inspired French team in the final, losing 2-0, the Spanish nevertheless regained their reputation.
Uniquely in their history, the Spanish were then able to build on this performance in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Qualifying from a group which contained Brazil, the Spanish went on to destroy the Danes 5-1 in the second round. Although they then suffered defeat at the hands of the Belgians after a penalty shoot-out, the showing was their best since 1950.
The stability under Muñoz ended thereafter, as the side exited the 1988 European Championship in West Germany early thanks to defeats by the Italians and the hosts. After such disappointment, it was no surprise that Luis Suárez took over for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. However, the change was not enough to stem the decline as, despite qualifying for the second round and boasting such players as the inimitable winger Michel, goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta and striker Emilio Butragueño, the Spanish went out after a 2-1 defeat against Yugoslavia.
Another tournament and another coach followed, with Vicente Miera taking over. His reign stuttered badly after the Spanish failed to even qualify for the 1992 European Championships in Sweden. However, there was some success, as the Spanish won the 1992 Olympic Games gold medal in Barcelona thanks to performances from the highly influential midfielder Josep Guardiola and striker Kiko, who scored two goals in the 3-2 victory against Poland that brought Spain the gold.
This wasn’t enough to save Miera though, as Javier Clemente was appointed coach in the same year. Things looked bright again coming into the 1994 World Cup in the United States, with the Spanish ranked fifth in the world and having breezed through qualification. Surprisingly, this did not result in ignominious failure either, as the Spanish qualified for the second round after defeating Bolivia 3-1 thanks to two fine goals from the great José Luis Caminero. This form was carried through into the second round, as La Selección took out the Swiss comfortably with goals from Hierro, Luis Enrique and Beguiristáin. Their eventual quarter-final finish, departing 2-1 against the Italians due to Roberto Baggio’s late goal, boded well for the rest of the decade.
However, further improvement was again nowhere to be seen as, during the 1996 European Championships in England, the Spanish were unable to capitalise on the 1994 World Cup showing. Having only qualified due to a limp 2-1 victory against the Romanians in the group stages, the Spanish lost to the hosts in a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage and the nation was left wanting yet again.
Matters were made worse two years later at the 1998 World Cup in France. Despite a strong squad filled with talent like Raúl and Fernando Morientes, La Selección failed to even reach the second round, losing to Nigeria 3-2 and drawing 0-0 against Paraguay. Although Clemente survived the immediate aftermath of such a dismal performance, he was eventually sacked during the qualification for the 2000 European Championship in Belgium and Switzerland and replaced by José Antonio Camacho.
Hung, drawn and quarter-final’d
Things looked bright initially, as Camacho brought qualification with relative ease. In the tournament itself, the Spanish won many fans after the initial disappointment of a 1-0 loss to Norway, particularly during the fantastic 4-3 victory against Yugoslavia, which secured their place in the knockout stages. However, the quarter-finals were again as far as Spain could manage. The fact the side was beaten by the eventual winners, France, only mitigated the agony slightly.
Nevertheless, hopes were raised yet again during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Now relying on senior players like Raúl, Hierro and Mendieta, the Spanish swept through the group stages with three victories against South Africa, Paraguay and Slovenia. The knockout stages proved an entirely different matter though, as a bitterly close contest against the Republic of Ireland was only decided after a penalty shoot-out, which La Selección won 3-2 to reach the quarter-finals against hosts South Korea. In a very curious encounter, with dubious refereeing decisions the order of the day, the quarter-finals again put paid to the Spanish, this time via a penalty shoot-out.
Barely recovering from another disappointment, the Spanish moved into the 2004 European Championships fresh with a number of young hopefuls like Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres. The changing of the order did not lead to a change of results though, as an early victory against the Russians was followed by a draw against the Greeks and a painful loss to the Portuguese thanks to Nuno Gomes’ goal, which meant the Spaniards failed to even get past the group stage.
Things seemed to have changed, however, by the time La Selección reached the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Despite a tortuously difficult qualifying stage, new coach Luis Aragonés seemed to have found a winning formula, as the Spaniards picked up three victories in the group stage of the final tournament, including an emphatic 4-0 result against Ukraine. Facing the French in the second round, it looked positive in the first half with a David Villa penalty but, unfortunately, the tide turned thereafter, and the Spaniards went out after a 3-1 defeat.
La Selección now looks ahead to the 2008 European Championships in Switzerland, having qualified in first place after some initial difficulties. Still under Luis Aragones, the challenge still remains to cast off their World Cup demons and secure an international trophy for their long-suffering fans.
- Biggest win – 13-0 (versus Bulgaria, 21/05/1933)
- Biggest defeat – 6-1 (versus Brazil, 13/7/1950)
- Highest ranking – No. 2 (December 1994)
- Best World Cup result – Fourth place (1950)
- Best European Championship result – Winners (1964)
- Most appearances – Andoni Zubizarreta (126 caps, 0 goals)
- Record goalscorer – Raúl Gonzalez (44 goals in 102 games)