“It could have gone off at an angle and broken a window,” Álvaro Morata said, but it didn’t. “We could have been going home,” Unai Simón said, but that didn’t happen either. “It’s strange for a team to get a second chance,” Luis Enrique said, and yet this time they did. Spain suffered again but they were still standing, emerging stronger on the other side, 5-3 winners against Croatia. Maybe even stronger than the rest, some now dared to believe.
During Spain’s first game at Euro 2020, supporters whistled Morata. Some did the same after the second, criticism circling when another draw left the selección on the edge. Near the touchline, some directed abuse at the player and his family. It had started even before the tournament, fans at the Wanda Metropolitano chanting: “Morata, how bad you are!”
How bad? Not bad at all. In extra time in Spain’s last-16 tie with Croatia, Morata took down a perfect Dani Olmo cross with his right foot, allowed it to bounce and then smashed a superb shot into the roof of the net with his left. It was a brilliant goal inspired partly by his Juventus teammate Federico Chiesa; it was also the beginning of something.
Simón’s desperate error had gifted Croatia an early lead and, in Luis Enrique’s words, left them in a “state of shock”. Then, having recovered to lead 3-1, a collective collapse allowed Croatia to score twice in five minutes and take it into extra time, their soft underbelly exposed again. Which was when Simón’s superb save kept them in it and Morata’s finish put them ahead and ultimately into the next round.
Theirs were the clearest redemption stories, but it was not just goalkeeper and striker; it was all of them, a state of optimism declared.
On Friday Spain play a quarter-final of a major tournament, which might not sound like much but it is the first time since 2012 – when they won the European Championship.
That barrier is not the only thing Spain have overcome, and that is the point. Support and expectation was lower than most could remember, an almost universal lack of belief. Sergio Busquets tested positive for Covid-19, then Diego Llorente did. They went into lockdown, unable to train together. Even the pitch in Seville was poor. So much for home advantage.
They drew against Sweden and, if they should have won, they could have lost. They drew against Poland and that, Luis Enrique admitted, was worse. Vulnerable at the back, wasteful up front, they were young, soft, indecisive, maybe just not quite good enough, many feared. Critics were waiting for Luis Enrique.
Even the win against Slovakia started with another catalogue of wasted chances, including another missed penalty – their second in the Euros, their fifth in a row – and didn’t entirely resolve the doubts, although it did allow some room for optimism. Their opponents, after all, were terrible and had scored two of their goals for them.
Beating Croatia in Copenhagen changed things, carrying them to St Petersburg in better shape. Something in the madness of it all that, while it revealed flaws, brought them together, may have made them stronger. Media and fans are back on board: TV figures showed more than 8 million people watched extra time, belief building. What came next helped, too: Spain will face Switzerland, not France.
Spain are in the quarter-finals. The world champions are not. The European champions are not, either. Germany have gone. The Netherlands have gone. By the end of the week, Italy or Belgium will have gone. Maybe they have become the team to avoid. “Now, we’re the bogeyman,” one headline had it. Spaniards look at who is left and no longer see a load of teams they can’t beat, anyone any better. That’s about who has gone, but it is also about what they have gone through.
Against Croatia, the three best Spaniards in La Liga last season were absent: Marcos Llorente and Gerard Moreno didn’t get a minute. Iago Aspas didn’t get in the squad. He was not the only absentee: Jesús Navas was left out and there were no Real Madrid players. Above all, the captain, Sergio Ramos, was not selected, with everything that signifies.
The names were not overwhelming for a national team that were recently world champions, much as those days had slipped away. It was legitimate to look at the squad and ask how many are truly top five in the world in their position? Maybe the question needed a rider: how many of them are now? Only Busquets remains from 2010, which is normal, but only seven squad members remain from Russia. Two of those, Koke and César Azpilicueta, returned after two years away. This is a young squad, average age just over 25, and many felt this summer was too early.
It looked that way at first but here we are. There are certainly concerns about how easily Spain concede chances. But they are closer now, Switzerland are a side they believe they can beat, and slowly everything seems to be falling into place. Diego Llorente is the only outfield player not to have got on the pitch yet.
Three players have played every minute and they – Pedri, Aymeric Laporte and Simón – were not internationals when this tournament should have taken place last year. Pedri is the youngest footballer at the competition but, Morata says, “he plays like he’s 40”. Busquets, whom some thought past it, has been fundamental since his return from quarantine. The goalkeeping debate, centre-stage before the tournament, is resolved.
Luis Enrique admitted that even Pablo Sarabia didn’t expect Pablo Sarabia to get the call-up. A substitute at Paris Saint-Germain, he had not been with the selección for two years and had only ever played 201 international minutes. “When I got the call, my girlfriend thought we were about to go on holiday,” he said. He has two goals and two assists. Olmo came from the bench to provide two extra-time assists. Ferrán Torres has eight goals in 16 Spain games.
Eric García has played more minutes for Spain in 2021 than for Manchester City. Cheltenham, Swansea, Brighton, Fulham and Newcastle were all the preparation he got but he has responded since replacing Pau Torres. Luis Enrique’s decision to nationalise Laporte, another potential flashpoint, has paid off, the City defender lasting longer than France. Azpilicueta has scored his first Spain goal. José Gayá, in for Jordi Alba, fired the shot that led to the equaliser against Croatia.
Then there’s the man who scored that goal, representing this resurrection like no one else. As the pressure built and Morata talked in troubling terms of how deeply the abuse affected him, at one point suggesting there could be a “tragedy”, Luis Enrique did something he never does: he gave the lineup in advance. “It’ll be Morata and 10 others,” he said. Morata admitted: “I have never felt so backed. It would have been easy for him to take me out of the team.”
Instead, Morata was there when the ball dropped. It might have smashed a window; instead it crashed into the net, carrying Spain to a quarter-final for the first time in nine years.