World Cup victory for Spain adds to status as a sports power in last decade

By Guy Hedgecoe, AP
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

World Cup win for Spain adds to sports status

MADRID — When Iker Casillas became the first Spanish player to lift the World Cup trophy in South Africa’s Soccer City, it underlined Spain’s recent emergence as a sports powerhouse.

Since 2000, Spain has won basketball’s world and European championships and four Davis Cup tennis titles; Rafael Nadal has captured eight Grand Slam victories; three Spanish riders have triumphed at the Tour de France; Fernando Alonso secured two Formula One titles, and Pau Gasol helped the Los Angeles Lakers win back-to-back NBA titles.

As Spain’s economic star rose over the decades, so did the quality of its sports stars — culminating with the World Cup win that had eluded the soccer-crazy nation after so many decades of frustration.

Even though Spain has been damaged by the current European debt crisis, experts predict it won’t lose its edge on the playing fields.

“Our progress in tennis, cycling, basketball, motor racing and bike racing has been remarkable,” said an editorial in Spanish daily El Pais the day after the World Cup triumph. “Football, however, always seemed to be condemned to the role of unfortunate hopeful, which seemed to have everything conspire against it. Referees, penalties — sport’s fates seemed to work overtime to delay this dream every four years.”

Spain had never reached the semifinals of soccer’s premier tournament. Spain has two of the biggest club teams in the world — Barcelona and Real Madrid — but its national team never delivered. That seemed to change with the team’s 2008 European Championship win.

Football, tennis and cycling have been the staples of Spanish sports for decades. With soccer players such as Alfredo di Stefano and Luis Suarez, tennis players Manolo Santana, Manuel Orantes, Sergi Bruguera and Arantxa Sanchez and Tour-winning cyclists Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain, the country already had an admirable stable of athletes.

However, most of the above were in their prime before Spain embarked on its construction-driven economic boom in the mid-1990s. The corresponding investment in the country’s sports facilities has led to unprecedented success.

“The development of sports infrastructure in this country over the last 20 years has been absolutely unbelievable,” said Juanma Murua, of sports consultant Avento in San Sebastian. “As a consequence, there has been a huge increase in the amount and quality of sport practiced.”

Murua said a focus on the development of coaches, particularly at the grassroots level, was crucial to Spain’s sports boom.

Going into the World Cup, for example, Spain had 23,995 coaches holding UEFA’s top qualifications, compared with 17,588 in the more populated France and only 2,769 in England.

The arrival of one or two outstanding figures boosted the profile of certain sports and created a new fanbase, driving popularity and economic backing.

“Nobody really followed Formula One here until Fernando Alonso won the world title. It’s the same with basketball — when Pau Gasol started to have an impact in the NBA, it took the sport to a new level for Spain,” said Miguel Jimenez, a 50-year-old sports fan who works as a security guard in Madrid. “In the towns and villages, the kids see Nadal winning at tennis and they say to their parents, ‘I want to play tennis.’”

Of course, Spain’s dominance is not total. Despite its pre-eminence in the handful of sports that Spaniards closely follow, there are others where it falls short. In the 2008 Olympics, Spain was 15th in the medal table, behind the likes of Ukraine, Kenya and Jamaica.

The fact the Olympics rewards certain multi-discipline sports more than others perhaps explain why Spain has rarely performed notably at the Games. Nonetheless, teams should go into the 2012 London Olympics in an optimistic mood.

Before then, Spanish athletes have more to prove this summer.

Alberto Contador is in contention to secure a third Tour de France title, and Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia are potential contenders at the British Open this week in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Delighted with Spain’s World Cup triumph, Garcia said: “It was great, so intense. For the country, it has been the best thing ever. Everybody has gone ballistic. It is great to see.”

Asked if he was going to wear anything or do anything for Spain during the Open, he added: “We’ll see. We’re working on it. Hopefully a nice surprise.”

Spain begins the defense of its world basketball title in Turkey on Aug. 28. Also, Spain and Portugal are hoping that the World Cup win will boost their joint bid to host the 2018 or 2022 tournament.

The only cloud on the horizon is the economic situation. Spain’s success story came to a shuddering halt as the world recession dug in. Murua points out that with other countries are suffering, so the playing field is relatively even.

Fabio Duran, of Cogesdeporte sports consultancy in Seville, believes that Spain’s sporting achievements should not be too affected by problems off the field.

“Sport is no less susceptible to (the recession) than other sectors, but we have strong structures and financing systems and support to be able to weather it,” he said.

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