18 months ago, the UEFA EURO 2020 ended in disappointment for Spain, as they were eliminated on penalties by Italy in the semi-finals of the continental competition, as Dani Olmo and Alvaro Morata missed two crucial spot kicks, with the eventual champions securing a 4-2 win.
Back then, the loss was not dubbed as a disaster, but Spain really would have wanted more, especially as they played an attractive brand of football. History, as we have it, repeated itself at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, when Spain also was eliminated on penalties.
But this time, it was a true disaster, as they started the game against Morocco in the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022 as huge favourites, especially as they kicked off the tournament in astonishing style, with a 7-0 win against Costa Rica. Then, it all unraveled.
And coach Luis Enrique’s words came back to bite him in the most unprecedented of ways. A manager known for his strong and firm beliefs in the system he applies, Enrique is a divisive figure in Spain: one either loves him or loathes him. This time, it might just be that the fans see the glass half empty.
“I imagine that they have done their homework. Over a year ago, in one of the Spain camps, I told them they had to get here with at least 1,000 penalties taken. If you wait until getting here to practise penalties…it won’t be enough,” said Enrique.
So much for practice, because all of Spain’s penalty takers looked afraid, even shellshocked before the runup it what was a do-or-die moment for “La Furia Roja”, who made steps back after dominating world football, winning the UEFA EURO twice, in 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
“It’s a moment of maximum tension, a time to show your nerve and that you can shoot the penalty in the way you have decided, if you have trained it a thousand times. It says a lot about each player. It’s trainable, manageable, how you manage the tension,” added the Spain manager.
“It’s increasingly less luck — the goalkeepers have more influence. We have a very good goalkeeper, any of the three can do very well in this situation. Every time we finish training, I see a lot of players taking penalties,” continued Enrique.
Yet the training did not pay off at all. And in fact, Spain should not have even got there, in a moment where everything can change and an inspired goalkeeper like Morocco’s Yassine Bounou can change the outcome of the game with some saves.
Pablo Sarabia hit the post, while Bounou saved without even a hitch the penalties shot by Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets. Enrique watched the shootout from the bench, with a gaze that seemed to understand what is really happening.
And Spain are really not good at penalties, having been eliminated in a shoot-out at the FIFA World Cup three times before Qatar 2022, at Mexico 1986, Korea/Japan 2002 and Russia 2018. Enrique knew that, but he refused to change the shape of his team, making controversial calls, like sticking to midfielder Marcos Llorente on the right side of the defence and with defensive midfielder Rodri slotted as a centre back.
“The responsibility is mine. I chose the first three penalty takers, who were those I thought were the best specialists on the pitch. We didn’t even get to the fourth. Bounou is a spectacular goalkeeper in this aspect, he has a high percentage of going the right way. He was great,” said Luis Enrique.
Spain’s coach was tight-lipped before the start of Qatar 2022 about his future, always maintaining a stance that he would like, one day, to return to managing a club, with his hands-on approach very well-known in Spain.
“Right now I’m looking forward to getting home to see my family and my dogs and be with them. I suppose that from next week, when the president of the federation considers it timely, we’ll talk about what the future can bring. Right now that means nothing to me, because we need to assimilate this disappointment and deal with it in the best way,” added Enrique.
Whether he continues or not on managing Spain, it is still to be seen. What is clear is that Spain will be definitely left hurt after another premature elimination, with their former glory still impossible to get back.
Since winning the trophy in 2010, Spain’s history at the FIFA World Cup reads an elimination in the group phase in 2014, and two consecutive elimination on penalties in 2018 and 2022, against Russia and Morocco, respectively.
In fact, Spain has only three wins under their name in 11 games, too little for a team that always believed they could do more. Surely, Enrique is responsible for the loss, as well as for the team selection. But what is sure is that nobody saw this coming.