The term “world champion” is tossed around casually in the United States. Win a league championship, slap a global label on it, cue Queen’s rock-and-roll anthem.
There are no such overstatements made about the delegation clad in red and gold polos circulating at the posh Mandarin Oriental hotel this week. The reigning world champion (Spain) from the world’s most popular sport (soccer) preparing for the planet’s most-watched competition (the World Cup) has come to Washington for final preparations ahead of its Brazilian arrival Monday.
As the Spanish federation is billing it, D.C. is the “Last Stop.”
Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport welcomed the Iberia Airlines flight from Madrid on Monday evening with arcing streams of water from fire trucks. Fans gathered outside the hotel in the rain Tuesday, seeking a glimpse or an autograph.
Dozens of reporters from overseas crowded into a small conference room for an interview session with two players who probably won’t start. Several young D.C. United players took a break from daily activities to watch the Spaniards practice inside RFK Stadium on Tuesday morning.
With the start of the World Cup eight days away, La Roja is practicing here for four days before playing El Salvador in a friendly Saturday at FedEx Field.
Almost half of the 32-team tournament field is using the United States as a way station before arriving at soccer’s samba celebration. England is based in Miami, and Portugal at the New York Jets’ practice facility. Mexico is playing three tuneups in the States, Honduras began a three-game slate at RFK last week and Bosnia, a World Cup debutant, satisfied the large Bosnian community in St. Louis.
They have come to acclimate to the heat and humidity that awaits in some Brazilian venues, to escape mounting public pressure at home and to collect fees from game promoters.
The Washington Redskins worked with MLS’s marketing arm (SUM) and United to stage a doubleheader: Spain vs. El Salvador at 4 p.m. and United’s regular season match against the Columbus Crew at 6:30. Almost 50,000 tickets have been sold.
Spain is seeking to continue one of the greatest runs of success in the sport’s fabled history: two European championships (2008 and ’12) and a World Cup title (2010) over five extraordinary summers. No country had ever won back-to-back Euro trophies before and none has won consecutive world crowns since Pele inspired Brazil in 1958 and ’62.
“We are the current champions and we’ll probably have more eyes on us in Brazil,” veteran midfielder Xabi Alonso said in an interview following Spain’s formal media event at the team hotel. “It is a massive challenge, but we have to be up to the challenge.”
Alonso is among 16 holdovers from the 2010 squad that lost its group opener to Switzerland before fully implementing its “tiki-taka” style of quick passes, flowing movement and sustained possession. La Roja culminated a month in South Africa with a 1-0 extra-time victory over the roughhousing Netherlands.
The finalists will get reacquainted on the second day of this World Cup, a June 13 heavyweight encounter in Salvador. Spain will also face Chile and Australia in Group B.
The question surrounding Spain is not the quality of personnel; in the recently completed seasons, 14 of 23 players were employed by either Champions League winner Real Madrid, La Liga champion Atletico Madrid or perennial titan Barcelona. Six others competed in the English Premier League, two in Italy’s Serie A and one for German Bundesliga winner Bayern Munich.
The issue is whether La Roja has collectively reached its pinnacle and is now approaching a downward trajectory. Alonso, orchestrators Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez and forwards David Villa and Fernando Torres are in their 30s.
“This time in Washington is very important because, for all of us, it was a very intense [club] season,” said Alonso, a member of the Real Madrid team that defeated Atletico in the European final less than two weeks ago.
“We were fighting for big things with our clubs. Looking ahead to the World Cup, we need some time to be together, to live together, to train together and build the idea of focusing on the target. That hunger, emotion and motivation needs to be there because if the mind is ready, the legs will follow.”
One set of legs is heading to MLS next year: Villa, Spain’s all-time leading scorer, this week signed with New York City FC, an expansion club that will play at Yankee Stadium for at least three years.
“I tried to convince him to stay one more year with me [at Atletico], but he decided to move forward with this,” defender Juanfran said through an interpreter. “I am happy for him. Hopefully he will become one of the best players in the league, and this is a great opportunity for Spanish players to play here.”
Alonso, 32, has not ruled out a move to MLS at some point.
“The end is closer than the beginning for me, so probably I will consider it,” said Alonso, who speaks English fluently after experiences in Ireland (as a teenage exchange student) and England (five seasons with Liverpool).
“I open the door to MLS because it is really attractive. It’s growing, it’s improving, things are being done better, the level is better. For everyone who loves football, it’s great that such a big country is becoming more and more important in the sport.”