Spanish "dark horses" are now thoroughbreds

By Mark Elkington

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain shook off their tag as perennial also-rans to win Euro 2008 and they are among the favorites to lift the World Cup for the first time in South Africa.

A runners-up finish to France at Euro 1984 and a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 had done little to banish what was known as Spain's "curse of the quarters" -- at Euro 1996 and 2000 and in the World Cups of 1994 and 2002 the last eight had proved a stumbling block.

Spanish fans feared the worst at Euro 2008 when world champions Italy battled to a 0-0 draw to force a penalty shootout in the quarter-finals, but that was when their luck changed and Iker Casillas's saves sent them through.

Coach Luis Aragones stepped down after Euro 2008 but his replacement Vicente del Bosque has kept the core of the team intact, making only minor adjustments to a well-organised and confident side who won all 10 matches in qualifying.

The only blip in their otherwise perfect run to the finals was a surprise 2-0 defeat to the United States in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup in June 2009.

That upset ended a 35-match unbeaten run and Del Bosque used it as a reminder to his players of the dangers of over-confidence.

Now anything less than a semi-final place in South Africa would be considered a failure.

(Editing by Robert Woodward)