Spain arrived at South Africa's east coast yesterday wondering whether they have finally made it back to the sunny uplands they occupied when they edged Germany to the European crown two years ago. Andres Iniesta is the man who has given them the belief that they have.
Iniesta's imprint on this tournament has not quite been what it was in 2008, when he was the only Spaniard to play in every game. He missed their second group game, against Honduras, this time around through injury – the story of a frustrating domestic season with Barcelona in which a thigh problem severely restricted him and he scored only one La Liga goal.
But the midfielder and David Villa have been the ones with the flashes of creativity. Iniesta scored Spain's winner in the 2-1 victory over Chile and set up Villa's goal in the war of attrition against Paraguay in the quarter-final on Saturday. The Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque, believes that tonight Germany will allow his side far more space in the 70,000-capacity Moses Mabhida Stadium than they got against Paraguay and Switzerland, who beat them 1-0 in their opening game. As they seek a place in their first World Cup final, Iniesta could be the man to prosper.
The only team selection debate yesterday revolved around whether Cesc Fabregas might start rather than Fernando Torres – the Emile Heskey of Spain's World Cup – who has held the ball but not found the net. Fabregas injured a leg in training on Monday and this may be the factor which persuades Del Bosque to keep faith with Torres.
Iniesta will certainly line up, though, fired by the thought of raising Spain among the pantheon of World Cup winners, where Germany have been three times before. Between them, this group of Spanish players have 157 titles, with Iniesta and Xavi in possession of 15, more than any other players in the camp. Yet the World Cup is a different story: Spain have never until now gone beyond a quarter-finals. "We have, of course, always had this wish to be champions," Iniesta reflected last night. "We have not always made it but we have had players of a great level before. This is probably due to the history of Spanish football. But we are lucky to be in this moment."
For Del Bosque a place in the final is something he has periodically seen Germany take up, with no little envy. "When I was a kid I knew that they made it in to the final," he said. The question both he and Joachim Löw have been fielding ad nauseam in the past few days is which of the two sides which contested the Euro 2008 final in Vienna has advanced most. If team selection goes to plan tonight, six of the Germans and six of the Spaniards who lined up the Ernst Happel Stadium will start in the World Cup semi-final. The received wisdom is that the Germans have progressed most in the intervening two years, a view Del Bosque did not entirely repudiate when he said that "generally speaking, [our game] is the same."
The countervailing view – Del Bosque's – is that Spain have not flattered as much because they have had a far more difficult passage against sides who have pressed harder than Argentina and England did the Germans. The coach, who described this as his most important game in a 15-year managerial career, sees a difference between the fast German football which has taken the tournament by storm and his own side's intricate game. "They play more vertical football. Perhaps we are more elaborate," he said.
Löw, who fielded a multitude of questions about whether his side would play a more defensive game to deny Spain space, said nothing would change.
Iniesta will certainly need the kind of wondrous football which made the Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, report, when he first saw him in action 12 years ago, that he had seen a 14-year-old who "reads the game better than me". After two injury-riddled seasons it would serve his future well to set Durban alight. The talk, amid Barcelona's attempts to bring Fabregas in, has been of Iniesta missing many of Barcelona's big games from next season.
Iniesta is an improbable World Cup hero. He has a pigmentation problem which leaves him so pale that one of the running jokes on Catalan TV is that he is a glow-worm – a children's toy whose face glows in the dark. El Pais has simply defined him as "Nureyev". He can see his moment now, though. "It doesn't occur to me to think only of the semi-final," he said. "We think onwards and want to lift the cup. We are linked to each other and have a collective interest, greater than the individual good. To take the trophy would be the apotheosis. I believe, hopefully, we can fulfil a dream."