It was supposed to be different. Spain travelled to Hannover to face France in the second round of the World Cup in 2006, full of hope and anticipation. La Roja had never beaten Les Bleus in a competitive match, but this time they were favourites.
“A por ellos,” sang the Spanish supporters. “Let’s go after them.” And when David Villa converted from the penalty spot to give Luis Aragones’ side the lead, things looked good. But an hour-and-a-half later, those fans were flat. Not only had they lost their voices, but they had lost a game they believed they could win. And many had lost their hope, too.
It was the same old story for Spain. Come the quarter-finals or the second round, they invariably imploded – and this time was no different. Franck Ribery levelled before half-time and Spain missed chances as the game wore on, but a deflected header from Patrick Vieira put France in front and Zinedine Zidane – deemed as past it at Real Madrid for much of his final campaign – twisted the knife with an impressive third in added time when he turned Carles Puyol and slotted past club colleague Iker Casillas.
I had travelled to Hannover on the train from Frankfurt with a Spanish journalist. She was hopeful, optimistic, yet nervy – fans of La Roja had been here before and knew to take nothing for granted. So the mood was one of cautious optimism rather than confidence despite a group stage in which Spain had looked far more dangerous than Les Bleus, beating Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, scoring eight and conceding just one.
France, meanwhile, had scraped through in second behind Switzerland in a group also featuring South Korea and Togo. The knockout stages, however, brought a second chance. And Raymond Domenech’s men took it to inflict an umpteenth disappointment on the Spanish side.
“Es un palo enorme,” Carles Puyol said in the mixed zone after the game. “A huge blow…” But it turned out to be an important one as Aragones stayed on, changed the team’s philosophy and led La Roja to glory at Euro 2008 before handing over to Vicente del Bosque. A World Cup win subsequently followed in South Africa and Spain have never looked back.
So it will be a very different side that meet France in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 on Saturday. Since losing to Les Bleus in Hannover on June 27, 2006, La Roja have come full circle.