Domestic issues harm Spain hopes of happiness

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The Independent Football

On Sunday night, with Spain three days away from a World Cup they have a chance of winning, El Rondo, a serious football programme on Spanish TV, dedicated almost its entire air-time to an interview with Predrag Mijatovic. The match-winner in the 1998 European Cup final, Mijatovic is the prospective director of football for one of the three candidates in the forthcoming election for the next Real Madrid president.

Amid this hour of hypothesising - about who he might buy and might sell - the World Cup was an afterthought. So does anyone in Spain care that the national team will, against Ukraine in Leipzig this afternoon, embark on their latest attempt to at last win the World Cup? Yes, but El Rondo's fascination with domestic issues provided further evidence that Spain's continual failure to punch their weight in international competition is because the country is so fixated on regional rivalries, between the capital and the Catalans, Basques and others, that the national team has been a sideshow. Thus Spain, despite qualifying for 11 tournaments, including the past seven, have only once gone past the quarter-finals, in 1950, when they finished fourth.

Xabi Alonso, the Liverpool midfielder, admitted the fact that several key players now work abroad (primarily in the Premiership) could lead to a different result. "Yes, I think so in some ways," he said. "It's good for the team that we have players playing overseas because that means that the Spanish player is... becoming more complete and learning new things in other leagues."

Spain are likely to go into the match without Raul, who is expected to be on the bench after toiling to recover the form of his youth following an injury in November.

Oleg Blokhin, the Ukraine coach, is pondering the worth of risking Andrei Shevchenko as a starter against the group favourites when wins over subsequent opponents Tunisia and Saudi Arabia would enable them to mark their World Cup debut with a second-round place. Chelsea's new £30.9m signing injured knee ligaments late in the Serie A season with Milan and has only appeared once since, as a second-half substitute in last week's warm-up victory over Luxembourg.

Blokhin said: "I want Shevchenko to be the star of the World Cup, but we have to see what his physical state is."