Spain flagWorld Soccer: Once upon a time, we’d be looking ahead to a major tournament with the old line about Spain as international football’s great underachievers. Now, things could hardly be any different…

Juan Mata: The 2008 European Championships changed everything and then the World Cup confirmed it. It showed us that Spain could be one of the great teams after all, that we really could compete. The build-up is different now. And now we have the chance to do something unique in history and win three tournaments in a row. Beyond the results, the most important thing about 2008 and 2010 was that it reinforced what we were doing, convincing us that we were on the right path – in terms of the group, the atmosphere, and the style of play. The identity and style has been cemented. There’s a real faith in the approach now; the legacy of victory is a confidence for the future too.

How important was South Africa in that process or was Euro 2008 enough?

Austria was the start, but I think the World Cup was significant. There’s nothing bigger than the World Cup and if we had not won there then I am sure that there would have been some people questioning the style and the approach, despite 2008. It would have provoked a degree of mistrust in our way of playing which might have had an impact. I think we’re now more convinced than ever that this is the right way of playing.

You’re up against Italy in the group, which may bring back memories of the last European Championship…

That was a turning point. It was always the same thing: “Spain never get beyond the quarters.” And it was Italy, who had always proven so difficult for us, in the quarters. It was hard, but when Spain got through against them on penalties that changed attitudes, ideas and mentalities with the seleccion which carried through to South Africa and until now.

What do you make of your group?

Italy are one of those teams that can play better or worse and can come into a tournament winning or losing, and it makes no difference. They are always extremely competitive. They’re the first game and that might condition the rest of the group. Mind you, it is always said that you cannot afford to lose in the first game and yet we showed at the World Cup after losing to Switzerland that there is sometimes time to make up for your mistakes.

What about Ireland and Croatia?

Naturally, we haven’t yet been able to analyse them properly but there are players I know, like Modric from Spurs who will be playing for Croatia. I think he’s a great player. Croatia tend to be a side that is built on talent and technical ability from the midfield forward, with a tough defence behind. I expect Ireland to play in an English style, to be physical and hard to break down. There will be time to study them more closely when the squad comes together.

Beyond Spain, who would you single out as the favourites?

I like Germany and Holland, both for the way they play and their youth. Then there’s Italy, England and France. Germany play with a very high tempo, they’re skilful and quick. Their qualification campaigns were almost perfect both for the World Cup and the Euros and they have changed their philosophy a little – they’re less physical than they were traditionally.

Where do you see yourself on July 1?

I don’t think you can think ahead. We never did in South Africa – if you do that and you go out in the group, then what? Thinking too far ahead is a mistake. But of course I would love to be in the Final.

And then off to the Olympics? It’s going to be a busy summer…

Yes, hopefully. I’d love to have very few days’ summer holiday – that would be a sign that things have gone really well at both competitions. For a footballer, it’s wonderful to have the chance to play in one tournament, so imagine two. And being in London makes the Olympics special for me too. I’m sure loads of friends and family will come to see me.

Interview by Sid Lowe