CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN: No 1 Spain; Clemente a unifying force

Spain are the perpetual under-achievers of European and world football. They invariably qualify for the finals of major tournaments, often threaten to go all the way and usually fail to live up to expectations. This time, things could be different.

Only twice, when they won the old European Nations Cup in 1964 and when they lost the final 20 years later, has Spain's performance lived up to the potential suggested by the depth of the country's domestic football. Yet, to outsiders, international success seemed a logical extension of the exploits of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Their rivalry, a manifestation of bitter political and cultural differences, almost certainly undermined footballing unity during the Franco era. While democratic Spain is not quite a rainbow nation, regional resentments are no longer as divisive. Both clubs have five players in the squad for the finals which, incidentally, is managed by a Basque.

Javier Clemente took over in 1992, sporting a CV that included the obligatory (brief) stint as Jesus Gil's coach at Atletico Madrid and the feat of taking Barcelona's "other" club, Espanol, to the Uefa Cup final. Clemente may have been excused for thinking that, after that lot, Spain would be a doddle.

There were moments in the United States two years ago when his tactical and organisational nous (critics call it dourness), allied to a dash of Latin flair, looked capable of taking Spain into the World Cup's last four at least. They held the initiative after equalising against Italy in the quarter-final but, true to character, blew out two minutes from time.

Two-thirds of the '94 squad will be in England, including Andoni Zubizarreta, once Terry Venables' keeper at Barcelona. A veteran of three World Cups, he was ever-present in a qualifying campaign which brought Spain eight wins, two draws and the distinction, shared with France and Russia, of remaining unbeaten. Given that the group included Denmark and Belgium, it was a significant feat.

Clemente sets great store by versatility. Jose Luis Caminero, who has slotted in seamlessly all over and netted twice against Bolivia in the US, is a favourite. The flip side of that coin is that they have no specialist finisher in the class of, say, Stoichkov or Raducoiu, strikers familiar from the Spanish game and lying in wait with Bulgaria and Romania respectively.

Of the 14 players who shared 25 goals in qualifying, Fernando Hierro's modest tally of four from midfield made him top scorer. The onus is on Juan Antonio Pizzi to improve on that as a lone front-runner. Alternatively, Clemente can call on Julio Salinas, a target man who also has three World Cups behind him.

The choice of Salinas, nearly 34 and past his best, is typical of the coach's contempt for press or public opinion. Likewise the omission of two teenaged wonders, Raul Gonzalez and Ivan de la Pena, who will instead be defending Spain's Olympic title. Nevertheless, a summer double is by no means out of the question.

SQUAD

Goalkeepers

Andoni Zubizarreta Valencia

Santiago Canizares Real Madrid

Jose Molina Atletico Madrid

Defenders

Abelardo Barcelona

Miguel Angel Nadal Barcelona

Sergi Barcelona

Albert Ferrer Barcelona

Rafael Alkorta Real Madrid

Jorge Otero Valencia

Alberto Belsue Real Zaragoza

Midfielders

Guillermo Amor Barcelona

Donato Deportivo La Coruna

Javier Manjarin Deportivo La Coruna

Fernando Hierro Real Madrid

Luis Enrique Real Madrid

Jose Luis Caminero Atletico Madrid

Julen Guerrero Athletic Bilbao

Forwards

Julio Salinas Sporting Gijon

Kiko Atletico Madrid

Alfonso Real Betis

Juan Antonio Pizzi Tenerife

Jose Amavisca Real Madrid

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