With Euro 2012 done and dusted, the attention now shifts to Brazil 2014, but can the all-conquering La Roja pull off another unprecedented feat where Europe has failed before?
By Keir Radnedge
Spain's heroes in Kiev were intent on more than just enjoying the moment after their thrilling demolition of Italy. Even amid all the Euro ecstasy, centre-back Gerard Pique was one of several players to cast his mind forward two years to the World Cup in Brazil.
Four times the World Cup has been staged in South America and no European country has ever won there. Spain's players know their football history and were talking of that next peak even as they celebrated scaling the heights of the European Championship once more.
Thus far, with Brazil playing host in 2014, South America has won all four World Cups on home soil: hosts Uruguay in 1930, Uruguay again in Brazil in 1950, Brazil in Chile in 1962 and then Argentina as hosts in 1978.
Europe is not favoured even by widening the scope of opportunity to include all ‘the Americas’ in general: Brazil won in Mexico in 1970 as well as in the USA in 1994 and Diego Maradona’s Argentina triumphed in Mexico in 1986.
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Such statistics could make intimidating reading for any coach lacking Vicente del Bosque’s sangfroid. Only two European teams have even made it to the final in those four South American hostings (Czechoslovakia in Chile '62 and Netherlands in Argentina '78).
However, since Brazil have won in Europe – albeit back in 1958 in Sweden – 2014 on their home territory appears an appropriate time and place for Europe to strike back.
The old continent stood little chance at the first finals, in Uruguay in 1930. For one thing, European football’s four reluctant sets of transatlantic sailors – no overnight jets in those days – were not at full strength and were not even the continent’s strongest. Thus France, Belgium and Romania went out in the group stage and Yugoslavia were hit for six by the hosts in the semi-finals.
In any case, Uruguay were Olympic champions – having won in Europe in both Antwerp in 1924 and in Amsterdam four years later. Hence the Celeste might claim to be the first treble winners after adding World Cup 1950 to those Olympic golds. Coincidentally, Uruguay’s appearance in Team GB’s group at London 2012 will be their first Olympic finals outing since their gold triumph in 1928.
The first post-war World Cup was staged in 1950 in Brazil. In fact, it should have been held in 1949 - but then the Brazilians decided that they would not be ready in time.
Those were the finals in which England, now back within the Fifa family, competed. They still possessed the ‘mother of the game’ aura and had run up some impressive victories in the previous two years. Hence they were installed as joint pre-finals favourites along with the the Brazilians. Clearly, over-expectation is nothing new.
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The subsequent, humiliating 1-0 defeat to USA still remains one of the greatest shocks in the history of the World Cup.
Yugoslavia, Switzerland, France and Italy were other first-round casualties, albeit that the Italians, World Cup holders from 1938, had a significant reason: a year earlier, the Torino side who provided the backbone of the national team had been wiped out in the Superga air disaster.
Uruguay, famously and heroically, beat Brazil in the final match, but wounded European pride was salvaged by Spain and Sweden taking third and fourth places respectively.
Now fast forward to 1962 in Chile. In the final, Czechoslovakia took the lead against Brazil before going on to falter 3-1; 16 years later Netherlands took hosts Argentina to extra time before losing by the same margin. In 1962 the Soviet Union's European champions fell in the quarter-finals; in 1978 the reigning European champions, Czechoslovakia, did not even qualify.
Four World Cups, all won by South American nations. Yet, observe the trend: third in 1950, runners-up in 1962 and runners-up after extra time in 1978. The pride of Europe has been coming closer to that historic first cross-over triumph in South America.
What's the price on Spain achieving yet another breakthrough? Conquistadores Nuevos does have a certain ring to it.