It's semi-finals time, but the phrase seems to jar slightly here, as if someone had made a mistake in proclaiming it. Yes - Spain are really there. And now that they are, the superstitions continue to abound in the media discourse regarding the game.
For example - Spain's 'curse' was always related to the quarter-finals stage but their record in semi-finals, on the few occasions that they've got there, is good. In 1964 in Spain they won against Hungary - and went on to beat the then Soviet Union, while in 1984 they beat Denmark, albeit on penalties. Then again, the Russians - formerly the Soviets, have played in more semi-finals than any other European side, so 'ya-boo' says Guus Hiddink. But there's more to add here. The rivalry between these two countries (or whatever…) can hardly be said to match that of the special aspects of the Italy v Spain pairing, but there is an interesting history between the two, if we're prepared to take the Soviet Union as more or less Russia for convenience in football terms - if you'll excuse the political niceties.
I'm sure Russia won't mind too much anyway, since the Soviets were the first to win this competition, in France in 1960. The interesting point to make here is that they won the quarter-finals by default, because Franco refused to allow Spain to play them - as if by making a stand he somehow held the moral edge. Whatever, four years later, with the destination of the competition awarded to Spain in recognition of their 'opening up' (despite the fact that it took another 14 years for democracy to take root), Spain decided to take on the Soviets this time - in the final. Spain won and Franco went back to his barracks a happy man. The fascists had beaten the commies, the blackshirts had beaten the reds. The effect of Real Madrid's temporary displacement in Europe by Inter Milan was smoothed somewhat and Spain had their only trophy - a fact that remains unchanged.
Now the Russians stand between them and a winnable final, and the 'reds' will be Russia again, despite the weakening of the communist associations. Spain, referred to in the home media as 'La Roja' (the red) for this tournament, will be playing in their yellowish/golden strip, an eventuality that has had the tarot readers working overtime. Apparently Luis Aragonés doesn't like yellow, and seems to regard it as unlucky. How on earth the papers dug this one up is a mystery, but anyway, it appears to be true.
It's a typical trick of the Spanish mind-set however, in that there has to be a get-out clause to explain defeat, should it occur. It will have nothing to do, therefore, with the Russian's superiority but with the fact that the Spanish were forced to play in yellow/gold. The anti-yellow thing seems to be connected to the death of Molière on stage (wearing yellow) but this extends to actors' reluctance to wear the colour, not Spain's. The Spanish refer to their tabloids as the 'yellow press', and the word has some negativity associated with it - but it's hardly enough to cause such a fuss.
Yellow or red, the Spanish newspapers have been very fair-minded about the Russians, and several of the better writers here had also noticed that even after the 4-1 win in the opening game, the Russians had played some good football in phases and had mainly fallen foul of misreading Spain's unexpected counter-attacking approach. Everything went right for Spain in that game, and they took their chances wonderfully. The odds, however, on a repeat of that score-line will be very long indeed. The odds that it will be a great game will be shorter, however.
Here are two sides who have demonstrated a faithful commitment to possession, movement off the ball, and swift, fluent play. There is no reason to assume that the game will not be an open one. Russia will be keen to show that their three-match run is no flash in the pan, and that the 1-4 starter is no reflection on their potential. It's amusing how every major club in Europe is now examining its bank accounts in order to put in a bid for Andrei Arshavin, a player who at 27 is hardly new on the scene. But he has been the main difference between the side that capitulated to Spain and the one that could easily now win the competition. Of course they have the excellent Yuri Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko too, but there's no need now to list the gems that reside in the Spanish side. And if both sides suffer from weaknesses in defence (although the Spanish looked tighter against Italy), so much the better for the potential spectacle.
The other obvious point to make is that the winners of this game will surely take all. You can never write the Germans off, as the cliché goes, but the Spanish in particular will be fancying their chances if they can get past Russia. The thought of their midfield advancing on the almost non-existent tackling of the German midfield and the chaos that David Villa and Fernando Torres can concoct - given the problems that Turkey caused the German back line without their key forward Nihat - and you have to say that a German win this time would constitute a shock.
It's still difficult to see how they beat Turkey, but in the end they were playing a weakened, if spirited side. There is nothing weak about either Spain or Russia. Croatia found Germany out, and both Russia and Spain now know that they could do the same. The desire to win this semi, and the pressure that the prospect of beating Germany will exert, is going to weigh more heavily on one side than the other, and the way to work out how this game will go may well be based on this factor. Spain and Russia are the two youngest squads in the tournament, but Russia are the youngest. It may be the grain of rice that tips the scales, but in Spain's favour.
Luis Aragonés, in line to become Fenerbahce's new manager for next season, has decided to stick to the winning formula. If it works, don't change it. That may be the most obvious plan to adopt, but there are still question marks over Andreas Iniesta, for example, a player who seems short of energy and spark. Pale-faced at the best of times, he has been looking positively ill during the tournament, and has not really carried the play in the way that Aragonés will have been expecting.
He is always a threat, but it seems odd that he has started every game, given his obvious lack of freshness. Surely Cesc Fabregas would be the bolder but more logical choice, with Xabi Alonso waiting in the wings if that doesn't come off. Spain need to be firing on all cylinders against a side who also like to keep the ball, and Iniesta has been disappointing. Cazorla has looked more effective every time he has come on, for example. But the signs in training are that the starting line-up will be the same as the one against Italy.
If it's a poor game I'll be surprised. What a great tournament it's been so far, and how fitting that one of the two most attractive sides will grace the final. Germany themselves have contributed to the spectacle too, but have shown more cracks in the armoury than one normally associates with them. Spain stand on the brink, after so long in the shadows.
Just one more hurdle to jump, and then they can go out and enjoy themselves in the final, win or lose. But it's far from clear who will win this semi-final. Logic is narrowly on the side of Spain, but logic has a tendency to stay away from tournaments like these. I can't wait for the game, but for once, I'm reluctant to stick my neck out. Erm….may the best team win, ole!