Saez believes Spain can finally deliver

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The Independent Football

Inaki Saez will be aiming to confound his critics at home when he leads Spain into a major tournament for the first time.

Inaki Saez will be aiming to confound his critics at home when he leads Spain into a major tournament for the first time.

Saez's mild, affable personality contrasts with that of his predecessor, the combative Jose Antonio Camacho, who resigned after Spain was eliminated by co-host South Korea in the quarterfinal of the 2002 World Cup.

Yet it hasn't prevented Saez clashing with the country's harsh sports press, whose regular carping has long been blamed for undermining confidence and cited as one of the reasons for Spain's dismal record at big events.

"A coach who plays the same against Germany and France as against Armenia and Norway is not ideal for the European championship," leading sports daily Marca chided after the team sailed through the play offs last November.

Criticism of the former Athletic de Bilbao player has smoldered since Spain finished second behind Greece in qualifying Group 6, the one blot on Saez's successful 19-game tenure.

"I have received so much criticism that you start doubting your own thoughts," Saez said at the time.

Recently, the 61-year-old was lambasted again by Marca for experimenting in a friendly against Denmark that his team won 2-0. He redeemed himself a month later when Spain did well in its 1-1 draw with Italy.

Saez said journalists should take note of the success this season of league champion and UEFA Cup winner Valencia, who "perhaps didn't play spectacularly but look where they are now."

"You all think that if you put all the good players in the team, everything will work. Well, it won't. You have to build and destroy. You have to seek equilibrium. That's my maxim," Saez told sports daily As recently.

Caution is Saez's watchword, demonstrated by his lack of response to the federation's offer last November to renew his contract until 2006. The coach says he'll wait until after this summer's championships before he makes his decision.

Saez hopes he can repeat his outstanding success with the country's junior teams. He led Spain's under-21 team to the European championship in 1998, the under-20 side to World Cup triumph in Nigeria in 1999 and finished runner-up with the Olympic team in Sydney the following year.

But he said Spain must be realistic about its chances in the European championships.

"We're going to play a competition which we haven't won for 40 years and which we had to make an enormous sacrifice to qualify for," he said.