Spain differ in one aspect from the other contenders for this year’s World Cup. Argentina, unbeaten in 35 games before the tournament final, can call on Lionel Messi, playing in their fifth and final World Cup; England have Harry Kane, who is likely to become the country’s all-time top scorer in Qatar; Brazil have Neymar Jr, famous for fame rather than his footballing exploits at this stage; and France have the electrifying Kylian Mbappe to help them retain the trophy.
Spain does not have a star player. Their key personalities are on the bench: their manager, Luis Enrique, who is probably the most capable coach in the tournament – he was a hat-trick coach with Barca in 2015; The 52-year-old will likely take over as manager of a top European club if he retires after the World Cup. It has been reported, for example, that he could take over at Atletico Madrid if Diego Simeone’s glorious cycle at the club comes to an end this summer.
Ever since Luis Enrique was named Spain coach – following the debacle in Russia in 2018 when the team’s coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament – he has been in the headlines. No other Spanish manager since Javier Clemente in the 1990s has been so controversial. Luis Enrique’s links with Barca – and his abrasive and annoying personality – have made him a lightning rod for disaffection in Spain, especially with the Madrid sports press.
In the summer of 1996, Luis Enrique became one of the few top players to cross the Great Divide, leaving Real Madrid to join Barça (historically many more star players like Bernd Schuster, Luís Figo and Michael Laudrup went the other way). When Luis Enrique arrived in Barcelona, he told a press conference that he didn’t like seeing his Panini football card with a Real Madrid shirt, adding that “the azulgrana [the blue and red of Barça] suits me better”, which caused great laughter among the journalists present.
Luis Enrique has become an instant favorite of Barca fans. He has completed his eight years as club captain, a notable accolade for a footballer born in Asturias on the other side of the country. He returned to Barcelona as Barca B coach in 2008, succeeding Pep Guardiola in that role. He then became head coach in 2014, facing Lionel Messi in his first season in charge, in a dispute resolved by the peacekeeping work of Xavi Hernández. Luis Enrique quit in 2017 after three trophy-laden seasons.
By a curious quirk, the majority of Spain’s starting XI at the moment, at least five or six players, are from Barca: Jordi Alba and Eric Garcia in defence; the midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Pedri and Gavi; and Ferran Torres up front. Only one Real Madrid player, Dani Carvajal, if preferred over Chelsea captain César Azpilicueta, will be part of the starting squad in Qatar. It is infuriating for supporters of the national team – which is the vehicle of vehement patriotism in Spain, a country torn apart by politics and the wounds of a civil war that have not healed – that an anti- Madridista is the head coach of a team full of Barca players.
Barca fans are ambivalent at best about the Spain national team’s fate in the World Cup. It’s like, say, how the nationalists in Derry felt about Martin O’Neill captaining Northern Ireland in the 1982 final. Whenever FC Barcelona play in the Copa del Rey final , Barça fans boo the national anthem. To fly a Spanish flag in the city of Barcelona is to be identified with the Spanish right wing. Flags are provocative symbols in the country.
In October 2017, for example, Spanish National Guard police crushed an informal referendum on Catalan independence, dragging women by their hair into polling stations and injuring more than 800 people. Later that day, Barca played Las Palmas behind closed doors in a La Liga match. The Las Palmas players sewed the Spanish flag on their shirts in solidarity with the rest of Spain. The Barça crest contains the Catalan flag.
Luis Enrique managed to rally the troops behind his flag. From 2014 to 2018, Spain failed to win a knockout tie in three tournament finals. Under Luis Enrique, Spain were unlucky to lose in the semi-finals of Euro 2020 to Italy on penalties. They reached the 2021 Nations League final, beating Germany 6–0 en route before losing 2–1 to France in the final; and they qualified for the last four of the 2023 Nations League.
Luis Enrique enraged his detractors during his work: he constantly tinkers with his line-ups; in 2021 he left Sergio Ramos out of the Spanish squad to take part in the European Championship final. Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea has been ruled out in favor of sweeping keeper Unai Simón. He offered 17-year-old Gavi, who had only played a handful of games for Barca, his national team debut in October 2021 against Italy. It was considered reckless staging. The bet is nevertheless successful.
Luis Enrique persists in playing Barca’s Garcia in his central defense duo despite the defender’s error-prone manners on the ball. Last June, when Spain lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic, Garcia was “in the picture”, as Spain say, for the match-winning game, erasing a clearance near the halfway line that allowed the Czechs to break through. to goal.
Spain is without “killer” in attack. Luis Enrique showed patience and perseverance in picking Alvaro Morata as the No.9. Morata has a fragile temper. He averages just one goal every three games at club level, having bounced back at several clubs during his career, including Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and his current employer Atletico Madrid. Luis Enrique appreciates his ability to act as a foil to those playing around him. It’s a typical Luis Enrique ploy.
Luis Enrique’s Spain team is a collective. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Spain has been a factory producing footballers. The Barca and Real Madrid youth academies have consistently provided the most young players per club in Europe’s top leagues for over a decade. Spain have won eight Euro Under-19 tournaments over the past two decades.
It is from this well that Luis Enrique draws, dotting his team with young, sharp technical footballers like Pedri, Gavi, Ansu Fati and Yéremy Pino of Villarreal, as well as Nico Williams of Athletic Bilbao, a bolter on the plane towards the Qatar. Spain under Luis Enrique has been inconsistent at times. They suffer against weaker teams who sit back and leave the ball to them, but if they come out of a tricky group, which includes Germany, Costa Rica and Japan, no one will want to face their young tyros.