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WE'VE BROKEN THROUGH THE SPAIN BARRIER; UEFA EURO 2008 Austria-Switzerland BIG-MATCH ACTION... Luis: We used to think last 8 was our ceiling - now we can go all the way SPAIN v RUSSIA Tonight, Vienna, 7.45.

Byline: By Keith Jackson

HE'S a 69-year-old racist and every now and then - even when his team is in action here at Euro 2008 - he looks like he's ready for his nap time.

Luis Aragones is the grumpy old manager of this tournament.

And yet tonight in Vienna, this very senior senor could be about to make himself something of a national treasure back in Spain where already the clamour has begun to keep him at the helm of their country's all-star side.

At last the Spaniards have emerged from the dark years of woeful under-achievement to claim a semi-final crack at Russia and Aragones has found his popularity soaring as a result.

On Sunday night, after a penalty shoot-out win over world champions Italy, King Juan Carlos burst into the old man's dressing room to pass on his thanks and congratulations on a job well done.

Even royalty is now convinced Aragones might be about to deliver their first European Championship triumph since they beat the old Soviet Union in the 1964 final.

But Aragones is one stubborn old goat. Which is why, even should he go all the way at these finals, he will say adios to the national team and join Turkish side Fenerbahce. Asked yesterday if he might reconsider his pretournament vow to walk away from the post on the back of a 10-game unbeaten run, Aragones snapped: "I have told you all I am leaving no matter how this tournament ends.

"I'd like to put on record my thanks to those people who have supported me - sometimes when it was difficult to do so. But even those who have criticised me have been good for me.

"So my thanks must go also to the people who have given me no support. Their attitudes made me reflect and think even more carefully about my choices and my decisions."

How to win friends and influence people - the Luis Aragones way.

And yet this is a man who never sought to win popularity contests. He had his homeland in an uproar before the finals when he binned Real Madrid striker Raul, saying: "He's already had three World Cups and two European Championships but hasn't delivered success!"

In 2004 Aragones was caught on camera giving a pep talk to then Arsenal winger Jose-Antonio Reyes during a training session. He advised the youngster to return to Highbury and tell that "black shit" Thierry Henry his days as the club's top man were about to come to end.

The authorities probed the slur and fined Aragones - but the coach held on to his job after claiming the remarks were designed to motivate his team.

And now here he stands, on the brink of his most fabulous success.

Aragones - who lost his job at Barcelona after suffering a mental breakdown before a match - added: "We've allowed ourselves to be handicapped for too long. We arrived at these tournaments believing the quarter-finals were Spain's ceiling. Perhaps that was doing us damage. In the World Cup two years ago we lost to France at that stage. But we learned something that night. We learned you must not play better than your opponents and still lose."

That lesson was put into practice against Italy on Sunday when Spain, despite pushing and probing for opening goal, also managed to keep the back door bolted shut.

That allowed keeper Iker Casillas to come up with his match-winning heroics in the shoot-out.

Aragones said: "If you have a keeper like Casillas you always have a chance. He's 10 out of 10 in every aspect - as a keeper, captain and as a man."

Moments after the Real Madrid No.1 had sent the Italians crashing out, Aragones and his team received the ultimate party guest.

Aragones said: "King Juan Carlos gave me the gold medal for sport some years ago and I joked with him then that a wage rise would be more appropriate.

"So when he came into our dressing room I mentioned it. The King said we were doing fine but the wages are staying the same!"

Despite his age and personality defects Aragones' stock will soar to new heights should he claim Russia boss Guus Hiddink's scalp tonight.

And Hiddink, 61, admitted he admires Aragones for his efforts with Spain and taking on a new challenge at his age.

The Dutchman said: "I hear he's going to Fenerbahce. You have to respect him for that. I tell you this - Iwon't be doing it when I'm 70.

"People say I have more experience around the world and that might be true. But when you know how to work and how to survive at the top level in Spain you must be abig man."

Spain hit fourpast Russia in their opening Group D clash but Hiddink and his side recovered to become the revelations of the tournament.

Yet Arsenal ace Cesc Fabregas said: "We have come here to win this thing and we think we can do it.

"Beating Italy was just a tiny step forward and anyone who believes they are going to see the same sort of Russian performance as they did in the first game is very much mistaken.

"There's a lot of hard work still to do."

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COMING OF AGE: Aragones may be pushing 70 but he's on the brink of delivering something special for Spain
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 26, 2008
Words:894
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