SALVADOR, Brazil — For the first time in more than 60 years, the World Cup is back in the spiritual home of soccer, and it is only natural that the pretournament spotlight has been overwhelmingly focused on the hosts and their enormously popular players.
For more than half a century, Brazil has been royalty in the global game, admired and supported on every continent. But over the last half-dozen years, it has not been the king of the sport. That honor goes to Spain, which finds itself in a rare moment outside the spotlight.
Had the 2014 World Cup been played in almost any other country, Spain would have almost assuredly absorbed the full glare of the world’s attention in its attempt to win back-to-back World Cups, interspersed with the last two European championships.
But somehow, even with that pedigree, the Spaniards arrived in Brazil relatively unnoticed given what they are setting out to accomplish, beginning Friday, when they take on the Netherlands in the first game of Group B. It is a game that, remarkably enough, will be a rematch of their fierce 2010 final in Johannesburg.
The last country to win consecutive World Cups was Brazil in 1962, and no team, until now, has come into the World Cup as the holder of the past two European championships and the world title. Yet all the pressure to succeed is piling atop Brazil, which has been anointed the favorite out of a combination of talent and home-country advantage. Spain has been allowed to prepare in relative peace.
“We’ve been together for 21 days now, six in Brazil,” said Spain’s coach, Vicente del Bosque. “Everything has gone very smoothly. There is a good ambience in the group, and we are enthusiastic to start with this party of football.”
He almost made it sound as if Spain had arrived in this colonial port town on a vacation cruise. Some have further wondered if the Spanish players — many of whom are on the older side and are possibly worn down from playing with their club teams deep into the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey — have lost their collective hunger for more trophies. Their 3-0 thrashing by Brazil in the Confederations Cup in Rio de Janeiro last year is seen as evidence of a decline.
But regardless of whether the Spaniards are suffering from a bit of complacency, age and fatigue, what awaits them on Friday may be their stiffest and most physical test in the opening round of the World Cup. The Dutch have a much different and younger roster from four years ago, when high kicks (Nigel de Jong’s foot plant on Xabi Alonso’s chest) and yellow cards (a record 14 of them) became an ugly footnote to Spain’s 1-0 victory in the final.
“It was brutal on the part of the Netherlands,” del Bosque said. “But you can’t criticize the Netherlands for their poor form of play. They have a great tradition.”
The Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, who was not in charge of the 2010 team and who will take over at Manchester United after the World Cup, has indicated that he will take a more conservative approach, using five defenders to try to neutralize Spain’s famous short-passing, possession-heavy style of play.
And when they win the ball and counter, the Dutch will rely on the experienced attacking threesome of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, a strategy that has sometimes proven effective against Spain’s style of play.