Spain ruled global football for four years then fell from grace with inconsistent performances at the last two major tournaments, but coach Julen Lopetegui says his new-look side are ready to carve out their own place in history at the World Cup in Russia.
A former Rayo Vallecano goalkeeper who had brief spells at Barcelona and Real Madrid, the 51-year-old Lopetegui has spent most of his coaching career in the national team set up, winning the European Championship with the under-19 and under-21 sides before taking the top job in August 2016.
His predecessor Vicente del Bosque led Spain to their first World Cup triumph in 2010 and glory at Euro 2012, but those roaring successes were followed by a group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup and defeat by Italy in the last 16 at Euro 2016.
“When you come from a painful moment after being knocked out of a tournament the first feeling is one of sadness, but when I arrived that sense was already passing and there was excitement to keep going, to forget that tournament and prepare for the next one,” Lopetegui told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
“We found a team in great health in every sense, a side full of top players. The fact they had gone to a tournament and not done as well as expected didn’t mean everything was a mess. Instead, we found a great team and we are trying to carve out our own path, trying to evolve and grow the style of play we already had.”
Lopetegui has always spoken of his gratitude to Del Bosque, but as soon as he came in he was not afraid to revamp the squad, removing dressing room heavyweights such as captain and keeper Iker Casillas and Chelsea pair Cesc Fabregas and Pedro.
“We understood that we had to take some decisions in the best interests of the team, and you’ll always have players that are chosen and others that aren’t,” Lopetegui said.
“These are players that have been so important to us and are still top but at a certain point they aren’t selected. That doesn’t mean they can’t come back, the doors are always open to everyone, but at the time you have to make some tough decisions.”
Only four players who took the first step in Spain’s global domination by winning Euro 2008 have made the cut for Lopetegui’s 23-man squad that will go to Russia — goalkeeper Pepe Reina, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos.
He has complemented those hardened winners with a hungry new generation, many of whom he worked with at under-19 and under-21 level, such as Atletico Madrid pair Saul Niguez and Koke, Real Madrid’s dazzling playmaker Isco and Valencia forward Rodrigo Moreno.
Spain play their first friendly ahead of the World Cup on Sunday at home to Switzerland, before travelling to their base of Krasnodar in Russia where they will meet Tunisia in their last warm-up game.
Their first World Cup game is against Portugal, their biggest rivals for top spot in Group B, which also contains Morocco and Iran.
Lopetegui is uncomfortable with comparing his side to the golden generation which reigned supreme in world football and became the first team to pull off a hat-trick of major international tournament wins.
“Comparing any generation to a unique generation in Spanish football and for me the best generation ever in world football is difficult, it’s not fair for the young players,” he said.
“We need to have total confidence in these players, they have ability, ambition and character but they have to carve out their own path, without comparing themselves to anybody and without looking back at what happened eight years ago. What happened then happened, but we need to focus on what we can do in Russia without looking eight years back.”
Spain steamrollered their way through World Cup qualifying, winning nine games, drawing one and scoring 36 goals.
They are unbeaten in 18 matches under Lopetegui, and their scintillating 3-0 win over Italy in a qualifier and a 6-1 blitz of Argentina in their last friendly outing showed their credentials as one of the favourites to lift the World Cup.
Not that Lopetegui likes that tag.
“Being favourites is no title, it’s an adjective, you win titles thanks to what you do on the pitch, and little else,” he said.
As well as an opportunity for Spain to re-establish themselves as the best team around, the World Cup is a chance for Lopetegui to prove he is a top level coach, after being sacked from his first major role with Porto in January 2016.
“In football you never know what can happen tomorrow, this is the elite and you have to be ready for any situation that can occur,” he said.
“When the Spanish Football Federation called me I was delighted, I was full of hope and motivation, and here we are.”