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Spain is on a major sports streak this year

The last time Spain ruled the world it did so from the gun deck of a galleon. Then the Spanish Armada was sent to the bottom of the English Channel and the country has spent the last 4 1/2 centuries playing catch-up.

Even Chicago Cubs fans haven’t had to wait that long to cheer a winner.

All of which makes this summer’s Spanish sporting renaissance that much more remarkable. In the last two months, Spanish athletes have won two Grand Slam tennis titles, an NBA championship, a Formula One race and the Tour de France. And they capped it off three weeks ago by winning the biggest prize of all, soccer’s World Cup.

Quite an achievement for a country with less land than Texas and just slightly more people than California and Virginia combined.

“It is a golden age in Spain,” says Xabi Alonso, a star on the national soccer team. “And we are enjoying it so far.”

So is virtually everyone else with Spanish blood. For San Clemente schoolteacher Hazel Dyer, whose family ties to Spain date back six centuries, the end of Iberian ignominy in the World Cup has made her proud of her heritage.

“Oh my God, it was incredible,” she says. “For us, it was like the first time Spain excelled. We are No. 1 — finally.”

Alonso and four other members of Spain’s first World Cup champion — goalkeeper Iker Casillas and defenders Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sergio Ramos — are expected to play Saturday when their club team, Real Madrid, meets the Galaxy in an international friendly at the Rose Bowl.

And although Real Madrid’s exhibition schedule, which included a 3-2 win over Club America on Wednesday in San Francisco, was planned long before Spain’s triumph in South Africa, the trip has become something of a victory tour nonetheless.

“We’ve really enjoyed the celebrations,” Alonso says, “because the achievement was very big.”

Yet the World Cup win was just part of an impressive string of victories for Spain, one that began in early June when Rafael Nadal won his fifth French Open title. Less than two weeks later, Barcelona’s Pau Gasol helped the Lakers to their second consecutive NBA championship. A couple of weeks after that, Nadal reaffirmed his No. 1 world ranking by winning at Wimbledon.

Then came the World Cup — which ended with Spain’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands in extra time — followed closely by Alberto Contador’s triumph in the Tour de France. That was Spain’s fifth consecutive win in the world’s most important bike race and it came on the same day race car driver Fernando Alonso won a Formula One grand prix in Germany.

The Spanish newspaper El Mundo hailed it as “a Spanish July,” writing that the victories by Contador and Alonso “closed the greatest month ever in Spanish sport.”

Even Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero noticed.

“Spanish sport,” he said, “is on a spectacular streak.”

If only the rest of the country were doing as well.

Spain’s economy is suffering through its worst crisis since the end of the Franco dictatorship, with unemployment hovering around 20%, the highest in Western Europe. The figure is twice as high among Spain’s youth.

Ironically, it was the booming economy that followed Spain’s transition to democracy a generation ago that fueled the country’s rise as an athletic power.

Beginning with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, public and private supporters flush with cash poured billions into the construction and renovation of sports facilities throughout the country. That helped Spain’s ACB become the world’s second-best basketball league behind the NBA while Spain’s La Liga, headed by Real Madrid and Champions League winner Barcelona, has arguably become the world’s best soccer loop.

And spending on sports has remained high despite the current economic crisis, with Real Madrid and Barcelona ranking as the world’s two richest soccer teams.

Improvements in nutrition and the rise of a leisure class with both the time and the money for sports, two other results of the post-fascist economic boom, have also had a huge impact on Spanish sports. It’s worth noting that Gasol, Nadal, Contador, Fernando Alonso and 21 of the 23 players on Spain’s World Cup winners were born after the 1978 constitutional referendum that reinstituted democracy.

“That has a lot to do with it,” says Karen Francis, Dyer’s twin sister who is also an Orange County teacher and Spanish soccer fan. “After the dictatorship, the fastest-growing economy in the world was Spain’s. Spain had money for everything. That promoted a lot of healthy living too.

“It was an amalgamation of all of those things.”

But all that recent success leads to a different kind of Spanish inquisition: What else can the country win in 2010?

Fortunately there are still a few mountains left to climb. It’s been 36 years since Spain won its only Miss Universe title, for example, a drought that 24-year-old model Adriana Reveron could end this month in Las Vegas.

And though the Academy Awards won’t be presented until February, the 2011 Oscars will recognize work done this year, a year that started well for Javier Bardem, who shared the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of a dying father in “Biutiful.”

Spain’s last Nobel Prize winner was novelist Camilo Jose Cela, who won the literature prize in 1989. Now, however, the country has a legitimate Peace Prize candidate in crusading former judge Baltasar Garzon. And if Sergio Garcia can win next week’s PGA Championship, where he’s finished second twice, he would be the first Spaniard to capture one of golf’s four majors since Jose Maria Olazabal won the Masters in 1999.

Sound a little farfetched? Perhaps. But if you listen to Xabi Alonso, you get the feeling the reign of Spain is not about to wane.

“In different sports, the mentality is quite good,” he says. “From the basic, from the youth … [there’s] a lot of patience, knowing that you have to work, gradually knowing in each age what to do.

“It’s a golden age at the moment. We’re really proud.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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