One of the saddest exchanges Papa witnessed was when Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque answered a question in a prep match at FedEx Field, held just prior to the 2014 World Cup. He was asked if he was going to start Diego Costa as a center forward and if he did would it affect the team’s ability to continue using its tiki-taka style of play. Del Bosque seemed peeved at the question and responded that Spain did not have a single style or a starting line-up so neither his choice of player nor style would affect the team’s expected stellar performance.
Needless to say, that was bunk as they did have both a starting lineup and a long-established playing style. Spain, modifying its style to a “long-ball-to-Costa” approach and using the same players who had previously played tiki-taka, lost 1-5 to the Netherlands in their opening game and 0-2 to Chile in the second game, with Costa starting both and only one starting player different from one game to the other.
The World Champions imploded and were the first team eliminated in Brazil. During the mentioned press conference, Gerard Pique and del Bosque were discussing Cesc Fabregas’s new contract and laughing at how much money he would be making. The press conference at hand was of no interest to them. After winning the 2008 Euro, the 2010 World Cup, and the 2021 Euro, Spain lost its humility (the one that had characterized the likes of Iniesta, Torres, Fabregas, Xavi, and Casillas) and became full of themselves.
Luis Enrique, the current Spanish coach, has been under intense scrutiny for his squad choices, his decision to start unproven youngsters over proven veterans, and even his early record. It was only when he started reaching deep into tourneys and winning most of the national team’s games that he began to get his earned credit. Enrique has a penchant for unnerving all observers–those who favor him get annoyed that he can’t get over the final hump and those who dislike him point to his many idiosyncracies and the reason for his falling short. Unfortunately, if you hear him speak at his press conferences, you get only two modes of response, a rather technical talk-down as if the questioner did not comprehend the sport, team, or tactic under discussion, or a “well, you see, we do things our way because it brought us three major international trophies in a row, something no other nation can say they have achieved lately. Get it?”
The two obvious glaring issues are that even though Enrique is a smart tactician, and Spain do have an established style of play that often garners positive results, neither the coach nor the style are infallible or invincible. The hubris shown by the coach seems to seep down into the player ranks where it often transforms into arrogance. Watch both the likes of veterans Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, and Cesar Azpilicueta, and youngsters Gavi, Pedri, Ansu, et.al. continuously argue calls with refs during matches or act as if there was no foul committed despite the infraction being called and the opponent writhing on the pitch or watch how they all hold on to the ball when a counterattack against them was stopped by a foul committed by one of them immediately upon the turnover. Refs will soon catch on to these unsportsmanlike shenanigans and it will cost Spain.
It gives one the feeling that Enrique and Spain are still living the high of a past golden era of glory the vast majority of the current squad and staff did not earn. That level of success does not get inherited it is earned and reaffirmed by high-level, consistent, winning play. Even when that level of success is obtained, it is foolish to tempt the gods—see France 2002, Italy 2010, Spain 2014, or Germany 2018. One gets the feeling that for Spain’s next golden generation to emerge from the brilliant new breed of talented youngsters in Enrique’s squad, they will need to navigate the crucible of a few humiliations.
As someone who likes Spanish Football and makes his living writing about it, Papa is saddened to say that the best thing that could happen to Enrique and Spain is to get eliminated at the Group Stage in Qatar 2022—and that outcome is not out of the realm of possibility.
Photo: Luis Enrique, Shutterstock ID 646921480, by imagestockdesign