En español | NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría is quite at home in space, logging 257 total days in orbit and posting the U.S. records for longest mission (215 days) and greatest number of spacewalks (10). But bring him back to Earth and he's likely to talk about his native Spain's chance to win the World Cup.
"Spain is ranked very highly, but it's still going to be tough," says López-Alegría, 51, who grew up in the United States and lives in Houston.
Many Americans of Hispanic heritage will be following the fortunes of Spain's team during the World Cup tournament this summer in South Africa. Yet Spain has always disappointed and has never won. This time around, though, the country's national soccer team, La Furia Roja (The Red Fury), is a strong favorite to win the championship.
López-Alegría was born in Madrid and moved to United States with his parents (his father was Spanish, his mother Italian American) as a toddler. He grew up in Southern California, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, earned his wings as a Navy pilot, and joined NASA's astronaut corps. He reconnected with his heritage in the early 1990s when he started traveling to Spain regularly to visit his retired father. In 1995, when he took off on his first flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia, he carried along the flag of the famed Real Madrid soccer club, which later invited him to a match as guest of honor.
He checks scores regularly to see how his favorite teams fared and catches soccer games on television as his busy schedule allows. He was visiting Germany and watched at a tavern when Spain defeated Germany to win the 2008 European Cup.
"Obviously I had a great time, though the other bar patrons did not," he says with a laugh. "But I don't think there was any controversy about that match. Spain clearly outplayed them and really did deserve to win."
Indeed, Spain is loaded with stars at every position, from the stalwart goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who debuted for the team a decade ago at the tender age of 18, to the sneaky striker David Villa, the team's second all-time leading goal scorer. If brawny defender Carles Puyol, with his Samson-like mane, represents the heart of the squad, then Xavi Hernández, the playmaker spraying pinpoint passes to his teammates, is the team's brain. Manager Vicente del Bosque, a successful former player and manager with Real Madrid, is an unassuming tactician who brings an air of calm and confidence to the entire enterprise.
All factors point to success in South Africa this summer, except for one thing—history. Although Spain has fielded formidable squads over the years, the team has underachieved at the World Cup, even when the country hosted the tournament in 1982. The team hasn't advanced past the quarterfinals since 1950. The Spaniards' decades-long run of disappointment has earned them a reputation as big-game "chokers."
"History tells us Spain has never done much at the World Cup, but I like this team's chances," says Mani Hernández, a Spaniard who immigrated to California as a teenager after his parents died. An accomplished soccer player as a youth in Spain, Hernández went on to play in college and professionally for the San Jose Earthquakes of the North American Soccer League. He also was winger for the U.S. National Team at the 1972 Olympics.
Hernández, 61, went on to teach and coach soccer at an all-girls high school in San Jose (the school's playing field is named for him). He's retired from coaching but still keeps close tabs on soccer news across the world.
"Spain is a powerhouse," Hernández says. "They knock the ball around, so they're fun to watch. They're very confident because they're good."
Today's team could be Spain's best ever. It went undefeated in World Cup qualifying matches. The squad got results, but it was also fun to watch, earning wide praise for its verve and imaginative play on the pitch. The team's only loss in recent years was a stunner, coming at the hands of underdog United States at the 2009 Confederations Cup tournament, also held in South Africa.
Still, Hernández warns about letting expectations climb too high: "The World Cup is tough. You always have the Brazilians and the Italians to contend with, and you can't discount the Argentineans or the Germans either. I also have a feeling the African teams will do well. There are so many good teams." But in the end, he says, "I still like to believe Spain has a good chance. Sometimes you just put a team together and they click, and then you've got a winner."