No teams, not the great West German team of the seventies or the fabulous French sides of the nineties, have accomplished what Spain wants to achieve --win three major championships back-to-back-to-back.
The Spaniards captured first the Euro 2008 title and the the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. They commence their quest for the Euro 2012 crown against Italy on Sunday.
Spain coach Vincente Del Bosque certainly isn't resting on his laurels, realizing the path to a unique triple will not be easy.
"We want to defend the title that the team won so brilliantly in 2008," he told World Soccer. "We know it is difficult -- so difficult in fact that no team has won three tournaments in a row before. We're really looking forward to competing.
“We have played well,” Del Bosque added. “We've tried to get the idea into the players' heads that they cannot drop their guard. The difficulty you have as a national team coach is continuity."
One other difficultly is the great rivalry between players from Real Madrid and Barcelona, but that appears to have been buried for this competition.
Real defender Alvaro Arbeloa stressed there were no problems.
"No, there is no split," he told Agence-France Presse. "We know how to differentiate between the relations at club and national levels where we all share a common goal: to defend our European title. If there are differences of opinion, we are here to make them go away. For the moment, the mood in the camp is good."
The key to the Spaniards' success is patience. They are not going to score in the opening five minutes of a match. They are going to wear you down with many pin-point passes as they look for a crack or weakness in the defense. More often than not, they usually find one.
The squad has a ton of talent and it will be up to Del Bosque to figure out which combinations work the best.
The presence of Iker Casillas in goal is among one of Spain's main strengths, having backstopped the country's last two championships and Real's title run this past La Liga season.
The backline will be tested by the absence of the injured Carlos Puyol (Barcelona), the defensive kingpin of the past two championships. The pressure will be on Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) and Arbeola to limit Casillas' save opportunities.
Del Bosque has plenty of talent from which to choose in the midfield or defense. Again, it will depend on what combination he wants to make or who is healthy.
At some time or another, Barcelona standouts Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and Xabi Alonso, Xavi (Real) and Juan Mata (Chelsea) should see some time in the tournament.
Spain has two big question marks up front --Barcelona's David Villa, Spain's all-time leading scorer who is coming back from a broken leg suffered in the 2011 Club World Cup, and Fernando Torres, who endured a long scoring drought with Chelsea before finding his form with several key goals late in the season.
If they are not viable options, Del Bosque might have to rely on Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), who is a lethal header, and David Silva, who played a vital role for Manchester City in its miracle march to the English Premier League crown.
Spain certainly has the ingredients to reach the championship game in Kiev. Whether the team is hungry enough for an unprecedented third international title and whether Del Bosque can make the right moves is another matter.
Italy, which plays Spain in Gdansk, Poland on Sunday, is expected to tussle for the group title. The Italians might have qualified for Euro with an 8-0-2 mark, but there are serious concerns about the team. The worries include an inconsistent attack and the fact it dropped friendlies to Ireland, Uruguay and the United States (in Genoa on Feb. 29) in the past year. The enigmatic Mario Balotteli, the talented Manchester City striker, could strike fear into his countryman's hearts because he is so unpredictable and winds up in the middle of needless controversies. The anchors of this team include goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, an international veteran, defender Giorgio Chiellini and midfielder Andrea Pirlo.
Ireland, which takes on the Spaniards on June 14, is playing in its first major international competition since the 2002 World Cup. Shay Given, a 36-year-old goalkeeper, is considered a great shot-stopper. Other key performers include versatile defender John O'Shea, midfielder Glenn Whelan and striker Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), who tallied seven times in 11 qualifying matches.
Croatia, which meets Spain on June 18, is a longshot to reach the quarterfinals, but might make life miserable for the group favorites. The Croatians' key players include midfielder Luka Modric (Tottenham) and forwards Eduardo (Shaktar Donetsk) and Mario Mandzukic (Wolfsburg).
The Other Groups
Russia appears to be the cream of the crop of this quartet. Poland, on the strength of it being co-hosts with the Ukraine, probably should get to the quarterfinals over the Czech Republic and Greece, which surprised everyone in the soccer universe by winning the 2004 championship.
This is the closest thing to a Group of Death. Three teams will contest the two quarterfinal berths -- Germany, 2010 World Cup finalist the Netherlands, and the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal. Denmark could suffer the most, getting beat up by the other contenders.
England is always among the most entertaining teams in whatever tournament it plays, usually off the pitch. The English press likes to build up their team's chances. But whether it be disappointing performances, goalkeeper howlers, controversy among the players or whatever poor soul has to coach this perennially underachieving side, it will be intriguing to see how the players and media reacts. This is also the French's first international competition since they melted down at the South Africa World Cup two years ago. It will be interesting to see how the new team performs this time around. Co-host Ukraine and Sweden are long shots to get out of the group.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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