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Euro 2020

A Spanish adventure ends in a shootout

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Death threats, own goals, big wins, narrow wins, no wins and a heartbreaking loss–a Spain campaign for the agesThen they came to the end; an ending that would have altogether reminded them of the very beginning, after Spain once again simply refused to put away a team they had thoroughly dominated. When this rollercoaster of a Euro campaign started all those weeks ago, Luis Enrique’s men (boys, really) couldn’t beat Sweden despite completing a record number of passes and owning an incredible 86% of the possession. Spain owned more than just possession in the first semi-final; they owned all of Italy itself.

Yet, as Jorginho cunningly rolled the ball into goal in the slowest of motions, none of Spain’s ridiculous superiority for over two long and thrilling hours at Wembley mattered—not their 16 attempts on goal to Italy’s 7, not their 65% possession and not even their 833 completed passes to the Azzurri’s 306. All the statistical supremacy in the world couldn’t dare put a smile on the face of young Pedri, who wept puddles at the finish despite having controlled the match on a yo-yo string, immortalised by his 99% pass accuracy for the evening.

“No 18-year-old has done what he has,” Enrique would later say of Barcelona’s Pedri, a teenage genius who kept the experience and wizardry of Thiago Alcantara firmly on the bench for the course of this tournament. “His performances, his interpretation of the role, how he finds free space, his quality, his character… I have never seen anyone do what he does, it is devoid of logic.

The lack of conventional logic, then, is a great starting point for the narration of Spain’s mad month at this Euro, exhilarating as it is excruciating. What a bizarre and simultaneously brilliant campaign it was while it lasted, right from the moment Enrique announced the first-ever Spain squad to a major tournament without a player from Real Madrid. As many as 26 slots; not one man from the biggest club in the world. Their absence was most felt in the form of one man—Sergio Ramos, an omnipresent figure during Spain’s metamorphosis from good to great this century.

In place of the injured centre-back, there was the enterprising but extremely inexperienced duo of Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte and Villarreal’s Pau Torres, with 1 and 8 appearances respectively for Spain before the Euros. This made 72-cap-old Jordi Alba the most experienced face of Spain’s defence by a fair mile, with Chelsea’s bedrock Cesar Azpilicueta, weirdly having only 25 international caps pre-tournament.

The stutters in their organisation went largely unnoticed during the three group games at home for all the focus—and the subsequent wrath—in Seville was on Alvaro Morata up front.

Morata missed a bagful of opportunities in the opener against Sweden and was jeered off the field, only to score against Poland in the next match and promptly fluff a penalty in a must-win against Slovakia. All that made the Juventus striker more than just a target for online bullies; he reported that his wife and sons received death threats as well. Like his team, Morata’s Euro journey would repeat itself at the end, as he came off the bench and scored the late equaliser against Italy, only to have his penalty kick saved in the shoot-outs.

Strange would get stranger when a team that simply couldn’t find the back of the net in the beginning and end of their campaign somehow became the only team to score five goals in two consecutive matches in the same edition of the European Championship. Slovakia were thrashed 5-0, before Croatia were narrowly edged out from the Round-of-16 in a 5-3 thriller.

That was the contest that truly exposed Spain’s frailties at the back, first when a long-range back pass by Pedri trickled past goalie Unai Simon and mostly when they allowed Croatia to slap together a comeback for the ages. Trailing 1-3 until the 85th minute, the 2018 World Cup finalists struck twice in a proverbial blink, pushing the game into extra-time. But this time, both forwards Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal were up to it in the first of two ETs, sending their country into a major quarterfinal for the first time since they won the Euro in 2012.

Strange would get stranger when a team that simply couldn’t find the back of the net in the beginning and end of their campaign somehow became the only team to score five goals in two consecutive matches in the same edition of the European Championship. Slovakia were thrashed 5-0, before Croatia were narrowly edged out from the Round-of-16 in a 5-3 thriller.

That was the contest that truly exposed Spain’s frailties at the back, first when a long-range back pass by Pedri trickled past goalie Unai Simon and mostly when they allowed Croatia to slap together a comeback for the ages. Trailing 1-3 until the 85th minute, the 2018 World Cup finalists struck twice in a proverbial blink, pushing the game into extra-time. But this time, both forwards Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal were up to it in the first of two ETs, sending their country into a major quarterfinal for the first time since they won the Euro in 2012.

No country had yet won two penalty shootouts at the same Euro and Spain couldn’t disturb that trend at Wembley on Tuesday. But they should never have got to the point of a shoot-out given their complete control of all four halves, especially the first. Had Enrique trusted a conventional No.9 during the initial 45 minutes, perhaps the match wouldn’t have even needed extra-time. Such was the ferocity with which Dani Olmo and Ferran Torres sent crosses screeching through Italy’s box.

Enrique made amends in the second half by bringing in two No.9s (although only Gerard Moreno wears it on his shirt) and almost immediately, one of them in Morata found himself at the end of an Olmo pass and poked it behind Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma. Achingly for these two men who combined to score the equaliser, neither Olmo nor Morata could beat Donnarumma from the spot.

Perhaps Spain’s newest generation will not look at Wembley as the end of the road but the beginning of one, for that’s how that man who shapes their dreams and visions sees this Euro campaign—as the starting point to Qatar (2022 World Cup). “I have no complaints. We have shown that we are a team. Now it is important to recover and then we will meet again ahead of World Cup qualification,” Enrique said, practical as ever. “It is not a sad night for me, not at all. You have to learn to win and lose.”

Six matches, 13 goals (most by a country in this tournament), death threats, one own-goal for the ages, two penalty shoot-outs and many violent oscillations of luck and fortune later, that’s what Spain’s chaotic campaign came down to—a life lesson. And it was in this month of madness that Enrique’s side learned to do both; win well and lose better.

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