SOCCER

The perks of being the best

Spain will not play matches against Eastern opposition amid rigors of winter

Spain train ahead of last week's friendly victory.
Spain train ahead of last week's friendly victory.K. Huesca (EFE)

Spain opens its qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with the knowledge that it will not have to visit the far-flung corners of some of the continent’s coldest cities during the coming winter.

Immediately after the draw for Group I was made, the Spanish and French football federations organized together with fellow participants Georgia, Belarus and Finland that their countries’ away matches were not to be played during March, when temperatures are regularly in the minuses.

The move was in part prompted by a desire to avoid any repeat of the Euro 2012 qualifier last March, which saw the reigning world and European champion take on Lithuania — and the extreme conditions — on a pitch where the players had difficulty staying on their feet due to the ravages of the winter weather. Although Spain came away with a 1-3 victory, coach Vicente del Bosque and federation general secretary Jorge Pérez have acted to ensure there will be no Kaunas rerun.

Del Bosque’s men will take on Georgia tonight (7.30pm, Telecinco) in what is described a “quite warm, perfectly normal” Tbilisi, by team doctor Óscar Celada, before traveling to Belarus on October 12th, making their final away trip of the campaign to Finland in September 2013, whilst France — which has already played in Helsinki — will travel to Georgia and Belarus at the same time, ensuring there is parity.

Being world and European champions doesn’t guarantee you anything"

Captain Iker Casillas has insisted that his team must “get off on the right foot,” whilst fellow Prince of Asturias Prize winner and vice-captain, Xavi Hernández, has said that the team never takes any opposition lightly: “Being world and European champions doesn’t guarantee you anything in soccer. We’ve analyzed Georgia and they are a tough opponent.”

Del Bosque — who will take charge of his 65th game as La Roja coach — welcomes back Spain’s top scorer of all time David Villa to the competitive international fold after a lengthy layoff to recover from a broken leg suffered in December of last year. Villa came off the bench to score a penalty in last Friday’s friendly rout of Saudi Arabia in Pontevedra, in which his Barcelona teammate Pedro stole the show with two goals, with Xavi and Santi Cazorla adding the others in what was an extremely comfortable 5-0 victory.

“I’m very pleased to be back with the national team,” the striker told the TVE1 television channel after the match.

“I missed soccer a lot — not only playing but also being in and around the national team, so now I don’t want to think back. It’s been a lot of hard work, but now I have to carry on and enjoy it now that I’m in a position to be able to,” he added before paying a special tribute to teammates who have helped him on his long road to recovery.

Spain go into the game on the back of a 13-game unbeaten streak which includes their 4-0 victory against Italy at this summer’s Euro 2012 final in Kiev. The challenge of trying to retain their crown on a stage such as Brazil is an incentive for the veterans in the squad, but qualification must come first.

It will be the first time the two teams have ever taken on one another, with the former Soviet Republic ranked a lowly 86th — 85 places below Spain — by Fifa. Del Bosque, however, is not taking anything for granted. “I think the players are fully aware. We know that our principal rival is Georgia,” he told reporters after Friday’s warm-up game, aware that in each group there is only one automatic qualification space up for grabs. It is therefore imperative for the coach that Spain does not fall behind: “Our key rivals France and Georgia both won, and this is something we cannot neglect, and as such, Tuesday’s game is of vital importance for us.”

France made a winning but unconvincing start by defeating Finland 0-1 in Helsinki whilst Georgia defeated Belarus by the same scoreline at home.

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