Euro 2020: Semi-finals

Embattled Enrique aims to take the next step

As Spain coach, Luis Enrique is not afraid to court controversy, including not selecting a single Real Madrid player for Euro 2020. But his tactics have been vindicated as the side are in the semi-finals for the first time since 2012.
As Spain coach, Luis Enrique is not afraid to court controversy, including not selecting a single Real Madrid player for Euro 2020. But his tactics have been vindicated as the side are in the semi-finals for the first time since 2012.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • Spain coach Luis Enrique has coped with personal tragedy and the impact of negative public opinion to rally his squad and lead them to the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

He incurred the wrath of many fans and large sections of the Spanish media for leaving Sergio Ramos out of his squad and picking no players from Real Madrid, with newspaper AS accusing him of betraying the nation's most popular club.

The coach turned more heads by only picking a 24-man squad instead of 26 and for encouraging France-born defender Aymeric Laporte to switch nationalities and lead the team's defence.

More incredulity followed when he kept Sergio Busquets in the squad after the midfielder tested positive for Covid-19, showing a sense of patience he did not afford Ramos, who had missed much of the last season through injury.

Busquets and Diego Llorente's positive tests hit Spain's preparations but Enrique played down the upheaval with a subtle reminder of the pain he endured in August 2019 when his daughter Xana died aged nine from cancer.

"Compared to some of the things I've had to deal with, this is child's play," he said.

The Spanish media dealt with his daughter's illness with sensitivity but have been unforgiving about his handling of La Roja and the knives came out when Spain drew their first two Euro 2020 games against Sweden and Poland.

Radio Marca described Enrique as "pig-headed", adding Spain were "not cut out to win this Euros and we all know it".

The coach was also asked in a news conference before the crunch game against Slovakia if he would resign if Spain were knocked out.

Spain great Xavi Hernandez was not surprised at the treatment the 51-year-old has received.

"The atmosphere around Spain is very critical, which makes it more difficult to win. It's even more difficult if the coach does not bring players from Real Madrid," he said.

By leaving out Ramos, Enrique blazed a similar trail to the late Luis Aragones, who was vilified for casting aside Real striker Raul but vindicated when Spain won Euro 2008.

Like Aragones, he has forged a siege mentality with the players and proved adept at man-management.

Alvaro Morata had to listen to his own fans chant "how bad are you" in a friendly against Portugal last month, but despite missing many chances, including a penalty, the striker has two goals at Euro 2020.

Unai Simon's comical own goal in the last 16 invited ridicule and reopened the debate whether David de Gea should have been the first-choice goalkeeper. But he made two penalty saves in the shoot-out win over Switzerland in the quarter-finals.

Defender Cesar Azpilicueta has done well here after being recalled following a three-year international exile, while Pablo Sarabia has justified his surprise inclusion in the squad with goals against Slovakia and Croatia.

Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal have also all made telling contributions when starting or off the bench.

"I always said we were one of the eight candidates to win the European Championship and now we are among the four best," said Enrique. "It would be ridiculous to be in the semi-finals and not think about taking one step more. This is the objective."

Win or lose, he will do it his own way.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2021, with the headline 'Embattled Enrique aims to take the next step'. Subscribe