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FOOTBALL

Spain’s new generation puts world football summit in its sights

Following a demolition job on Italy, Spain look to cement their status as one of the favourites for next year's World Cup with another thrashing of Liechtenstein on Tuesday.

Spain's new generation puts world football summit in its sights
Spain players celebrate the victory over Italy in Madrid. Photo: AFP

Inspired by Isco's array of silky skills and clinical finishing, La Roja swept aside Italy 3-0 on Saturday night to take a commanding three-point lead at the top of Group G of European qualifying.

After early exits as defending champions at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, Spain's display was reminiscent of the side that won three back-to-back major tournaments between 2008 and 2012.

“With the attitude with which we have played the World Cup is very close,” said Isco, whose close control and two goals left even Italy boss Giampiero Ventura singing his praises.

“This team still has hunger. Those that have won it all, the new ones that have come in, the ones that have returned. It is an incredible squad.”

The climax of Spain's golden era was a 4-0 humiliation of Italy in the final of Euro 2012.

Yet, that generation seemed to have had its time when Italy outclassed and outfought a jaded Spain just 15 months ago in Vicente del Bosque's final game in charge at Euro 2016.

Under Julen Lopetegui, though, La Roja have rediscovered the precise passing and pressing that once made them the most feared side in international football with a mixture of youth and experience.

Isco was one of just four changes from the side that lost to Italy at Euro 2016.

A host of World Cup winners from 2010 in Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Andres Iniesta remain.

But around them Spain have another enviously talented generation ready to shine.

Marco Asensio made his first competitive international start on Saturday at just 21.

Meanwhile, the likes of David de Gea, Dani Carvajal, Koke, Saul Niguez and Alvaro Morata all have significant international and Champions League experience despite their tender age.

“You only have to look at almost any Spanish player to see they have played in three Champions League finals and in our side there are very few (with that experience),” lamented Ventura.

Such competition with Spain and Real Madrid has meant even a player of Isco's talent has had to wait for his opportunity.

Only in the past six months has the man nicknamed “magic” by his Real teammates managed to hold down a regular place in the starting line-up at the Bernabeu.

Indeed, his form at the end of last season was so spectacular that Gareth Bale was relegated to the bench for the Champions League final on his homecoming to Cardiff as Real routed Juventus 4-1.

“I haven't played many games for the national team, but this was perhaps the most special,” Isco added after his taming of the Azzurri.

“Confidence and continuity is very important for these things.”

Lopetegui has also underlined the significance of Isco's growing importance to Madrid for his maturation on the international stage.

“Playing regularly, gaining important experience with his club and with us means that as a footballer he is growing,” said Lopetegui.

“Isco has always had quality and now he is becoming a great player.”

Lopetegui is the envy of many international coaches with the quantity of great players at his disposal.

A Liechtenstein side that lost 8-0 on their visit to Spain a year ago are unlikely to pose any serious threat.

Whether Lopetegui's Spain are up to the vintage of 2008 to 2012 will only be properly tested once they get to Russia in June.

READ ALSO: Isco turning talent into greatness

FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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