Can Spain redeem national pride at the 2014 Basketball World Cup?

The phrase ‘2014 World Cup’ is not one which will sooth the ears of Spain’s sporting fanaticos. Two months on from Brazil, the inquest for their footballers is not yet complete. National redemption, they hope however, may soon arrive.

With basketball’s global showpiece tipping off this afternoon within their own borders, there are expectations on Los Rojos to step up and restore lost pride.

The United States, quite naturally, are the favourites to lift the trophy in Madrid in 15 days time. Replete with NBA stars, the Olympic champions will feel it is their birthright to emerge victorious. The Spanish, however, have been plotting an ambush, ever since this tournament was scheduled for Iberia. On recent records, it is a mission that could well be accomplished.

For all the might of the Americans, it is a second-string which will open up against Finland in the group stages this evening. The likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant will be watching from afar, with the likes of Mason Plumlee, little known other than by fans of the Brooklyn Nets, among those drafted in to fill the void.

The World Cup, despite FIBA’s attempts to position it as a counter-weight to the Olympics, does not hold the same lure across the Atlantic. Finding 12 good men and true proved an arduous task. “What we try to do,” explained head coach Mike Krzyzewski, “is have a good core of eight or nine guys, and then the last three kind of fit in with what you need and how you complement the other players on the team. We feel good.”

With NBA All Stars like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, he is not short of talent. Spain, however, have proven performers of their own. Over the last decade, their golden generation has picked up two European titles, successive Olympic silvers and a world title in 2006. Yet for the likes of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jose Calderon, all giants of the game, this may be the last tour of duty.

They arrive unbeaten for this final fling. And although Lithuania and Brazil have impressed, the anticipation is that, as at London 2012, it will be the holders and hosts left standing with the prize at stake. “Things are always the same,” Spain’s coach Juan Orenga said. “We aim to play in the final and we dream of beating whomever is there.”

With six teams in each preliminary round group, and the top four advancing into the knockout stages, it will be a scrap to usurp the two favourites.

Brazil, behind NBA giants Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao, look capable of making a run to the final despite losing by 17 in a friendly with the USA. Serbia, despite a squad which was entirely based in Europe last season, cannot be discounted. And European champions France, even minus Tony Parker and late injury Nando de Colo, believe they can withstand the early tests and target the podium.

“On the one hand, it’s a good thing because we won’t have to play them all again,” said Florent Pietrus. “But in a competition, you won’t always hit top form from the start or need to have it straight away. You only have these small adjustments that allow you to get better as you go along. It’s the group of death, for sure, but you should ask our opponents if they’re looking forward to meeting us.”

The same might be said for Lithuania, possibly Europe’s leading contender. One year wiser after their sub-par showing against the French in the EuroBasket final, they have the brain and brawn to coast through a Group D that includes weakened Slovenia and Australia and progress towards a forecasted semi-final with the Americans.

And while Argentina, bereft of San Antonio Spurs talisman Manu Ginobili, seem set to fade, Croatia and Greece can vie for top spot in Group B and attempt to realise their often-wasted potential.

It promises to be 15 days of intensity, particularly when eight also-rans are discarded and 16 reach the business end where it becomes win or go home. Ultimately, in spite of their flaws, all roads still pass through Team USA.

“No disrespect, but when you win by 20 or 30 points almost every game, you have nothing but confidence and going out there playing with a chip on your shoulder,” Rose said.

If that was the sound of a gauntlet thrown down, it’s up to the rest of the world to pick it up and hit back if they want to pull off an unforgettable achievement.

Group A (Granada): Spain, Brazil, Serbia, France, Iran, Egypt
Group B (Seville): Croatia, Greece, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Philippines
Group C (Bilbao): USA, Turkey, Finland, Ukraine, Dominican Republic, New Zealand
Group D (Gran Canaria): Lithuania, Slovenia, Australia, Angola, Mexico, Korea

(Top four in each to qualify for Round of 16)

Last 16: 6 and 7 September (Madrid/Barcelona)
Quarter-finals: 9 and 10 September (Madrid/Barcelona)
Semi-finals: 11 and 12 September (Madrid/Barcelona)
3rd place: 13 September (Madrid)
Final: 14 September (Madrid)

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