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Spain must make the most of rare opportunity
By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For countries like Brazil, Italy and Germany, success in the World Cup is passed down from generation to generation, almost like a hereditary trait.

The ability to perform at the highest level on the world's biggest stage appears to be encoded in their DNA, as evidenced by the fact that the three nations have combined to win 12 of the 18 World Cups on offer, while just two of the previous 18 World Cup finals did not include one of those three powerhouses.

But for a team like Spain, which will be appearing in its first World Cup final on Sunday against the Netherlands, opportunities to win the competition don't come along very often.

The Spanish have always been a cut below teams like Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Germany in the global pecking order, and they have developed a reputation in recent years for coming up short when the stakes are highest.

Spain has put together some pretty good teams recently, including the 2002 World Cup team that was led by potent striker Raul and anchored by Fernando Hierro.

That squad was knocked out in the quarterfinal stage by hosts South Korea in controversial fashion, as they had two good goals ruled out because of poor offside calls to illustrate the fine line between success and failure at the World Cup.

The 2002 edition represented the best chance that Spain has had at achieving World Cup success recently, until now.

Every so often, the stars will align and a new team will emerge as a threat to the usual suspects at a World Cup.

France had its most successful period in the late 1990's when Les Bleus rode a talented nucleus led by Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Thierry Henry to the World Cup title in 1998, before they also claimed the European championship two years later.

Portugal was expected to achieve similar results when they entered the 2002 World Cup with players like Luis Figo, Pauleta and Rui Costa. And although it was the most talented Portugal team to come along in over 30 years, they fell woefully short and failed to advance past the group stage.

The point is that some teams take their big chance, others don't, and now Spain will be trying to emulate what the French did 12 years ago.

There is no doubt that this team is well-equipped to take home the trophy as they were one of the favorites, along with Brazil, to win the competition.

Spain shed their label as underachievers by winning the 2008 European championship, and now with essentially the same team two years later, can establish themselves as a true world power.

The scary thing for the rest of the world is that only four of the 23 players on Spain's roster are 30 or older, meaning that they should be a threat even four years from now when the World Cup will be held in Brazil.

But so much can happen in four years time, and opportunities to reach the final are so rare.

"We haven't achieved anything like this before but this team deserves everything that comes our way," said Spain striker David Villa. "It's not easy to get this far but we're hungry for more and we couldn't be happier at reaching the final. That's what we came here for and now we want to go out and win it."

If Spain is successful in capturing the title, Villa will be one of the big reasons why. He is tied with Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder for the tournament lead with five goals.

Villa has scored all but two of his team's goals en route to the final, and his contribution has been especially important considering the poor form that strike partner Fernando Torres has been in.

Torres was benched in favor of Pedro for the 1-0 semifinal win over Germany this past Wednesday, but this just underlines the incredible depth in a team that really has no weakness.

Go ahead, try and name the biggest problem in the Spanish team and it might take you a while to find one.

Offensively, Villa has carried the team but he has gotten strong contributions from midfielders Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, while the team has conceded just two goals all tournament thanks to an air-tight defense led by captain Carles Puyol and goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Spain entered the tournament as the most complete team in the world, and outside of a small hiccup at the start of the competition against Switzerland, which beat Spain, 1-0, they have done nothing to disprove that notion.

The Netherlands will also be trying to win their first World Cup on Sunday after they lost successive finals in 1974 and 1978, with easily the best collection of players that Holland has ever produced.

Those Dutch teams of the 1970's were some of the most entertaining teams in the world, but they know all too well how empty a feeling it is when a golden generation of players comes up short.

It is a feeling that Spanish fans and players alike hope they never have to know.