Soccer

Spain and Luis Enrique undoubtedly succeeded at Euro 2020 despite semi-final defeat to Italy

That was the overriding thought when Sergio Busquets received a positive coronavirus test in the lead up to Euro 2020, a test that resulted in chaos at the Spain camp.

It was a case of ‘here we go again’ because chaos was nothing new following the 2018 World Cup three years ago, when Spain became the laughing stock of the competition.

The whole Julen Lopetegui saga played no small part in Spain’s early exit from the last World Cup, a Round of 16 defeat to Russia.

Confidence wasn’t too much higher this time around. Few in Spain expected La Roja to do anything in this tournament, so you can imagine the sense of resignation when Busquets tested positive and all hell broke loose in the Spain camp.

Players were forced to train individually, the final friendly before Euro 2020 didn’t feature any of the squad – with the under-21s squad drafted in to face Lithuania – while a parallel training squad was also brought into Laz Rozas in case there were further positive tests.

Already unfancied Spain were quickly put at a serious disadvantage, with Luis Enrique unable to work with his players as a group until the very last minute.

It showed early on. Despite two positive performances, Spain scored one goal in their first two games and drew both games.

They came alive with a 5-0 win over Slovakia and scored another five to defeat Croatia 5-3 in extra time in the next round.

A defensive error meant a slice of luck was needed against Switzerland but progress Spain did, reaching the semi-final against an Italian side that had captured the imagination of everyone in the competition, reaching the penultimate stage in a far more convincing fashion.

Spain were everyone’s underdogs but they produced one of their best performances of the competition.

Missed chances would cost them, and this time luck went against them in the penalty shootout, a method Italy boss Roberto Mancini himself even described as a ‘lottery’.

Spain are out, but not in the way everyone thought they would be.

Despite the disastrous preparation, the chaotic build-up, there was no disaster here.

Critics waited for the opportunity to bring down Luis Enrique, particularly after he didn’t select a single Real Madrid player for his squad, but it never came.

The former Barcelona boss made a number of strange selection decisions across the competition, but they almost always paid off.

Regardless of who he picked, Spain wore their heart on their sleeve and left a nation proud.

Sure, this Spain team is good enough to reach the final, arguably capable of playing even better, but that will come.

This story is about context, about defying expectation, defying setbacks, about Luis Enrique’s unquestionable character, about Alvaro Morata standing up to his critics after watching his family receive abuse for his actions on the pitch, scoring a semi-final equaliser, missing a semi-final penalty and still standing tall at the end of it all.

Suddenly, there is excitement around the national team again, just three years after embarrassment in Russia.

Luis Enrique has brought La Roja back to the hearts of Spanish people and he did it by ensuring all of his players represent the values he embodies.

The man who stands tall whatever life throws at him, the surfer, the ultramarathon runner.

Hard work, effort, giving everything, not just for the shirt, but for pride in one’s self. That’s is the minimum under Luis Enrique, and it shows.

Spain, a team that became known for being pretty winners across a treble-winning period between 2008 and 2012, are now a team who might still play pretty football at times, but overwhelmingly, they are a team who fight tooth and nail, a team who played three sets of extra-time and still did not cower.

Perhaps that’s where the ultramarathons come in handy, perhaps it’s that example of perseverance that Luis Enrique sets.

But whatever it is, Spain, like their manager, have it in abundance, and it’s that, above all, that has helped them win over their nation again.

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