DOHA, Qatar — When Spain broke their 44-year trophy drought by beating Germany 1-0 in the Euro 2008 final, Luis Enrique had just put himself through physical and mental torture. Spain’s current manager, with a team of friends, ran, walked, hobbled and dragged himself across 251km in the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert to complete the infamous « Marathon des Sables. »
Carrying 35kg of supplies, with water and food being the main constituents, he, like all the competitors, slept in open-sided tent structures across six agonizing days and nights during which pain, tiredness, blisters, sunburn and psychological strain were his constant companions . He completed the marathon, of course, because he is one tough, fanatically driven, natural athlete who admits he thrives on adversity. In fact, he prefers it.
The winners that year were both Moroccan, for the first time, and the section of the Sahara where this event was born (and continues to baffle any of us whose greatest challenge is 25 solid minutes on the gym treadmill) is in southern Morocco. But now it is Morocco’s Atlas Lions who Luis Enrique must beat to progress in the World Cup and they could be a stringent test of every physical and mental fiber he has.
The fact that the 52 year old will be out of contract whenever Spain’s tournament is complete means that Morocco could feasibly put an end to what have been four enjoyable years of « Lucho-ball. » Away wins in England and Italy, a 6-0 thrashing of Germany (Die Mannschaft‘s record defeat), another 6-0 hammering of Croatia, the first competitive win in Portugal since 1934, a European Championship semifinal, a Nations League final, plus another semifinal in that tournament to come next June.
Not bad, Luis Enrique, not bad. But this, in football terms, is the Holy Grail.
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The only two times Spain won the World Cup, at senior and Under-20 level, endurance, discomfort and suffering were the order of the day.
In 1999, Xavi, Iker Casillas, Carlos Marchena and company took the U20 title in Nigeria. Their experiences in summary: there was a shooting outside their Calabar hotel when they arrived; cockroaches, lizards and rats everywhere in their hotel; they were forced to sleep two players to a bed; Xavi got so ill he shed kilograms in weight he couldn’t afford to lose; and coach Inaki Saez was informed that his mother had died.
Then, in 2010, the real thing. In South Africa, like now, Spain’s players slept in university accommodation. Unlike now it was utterly basic: tiny rooms, two-bar heaters on the wall, no central heating, a tiled floor, a single bed, a TV up on the wall with a screen just about bigger than an iPad or PC. And cash robbed from a couple of the rooms in Durban.
The tournament itself was a struggle on muddy, unpredictable pitches. There was a 1-0 opening match defeat to Switzerland, Andres Iniesta’s emergence from a deep and devastating year of depression, then tension and nerves amongst the squad during the all-or-nothing group games against Honduras and Chile like none of Vicente del Bosque’s players had experienced before or since.
But they thrived. They won. They became legends.
At Qatar 2022, after a 7-0 opening win over Costa Rica, Spain have only suffered on the pitch. Particularly in the last 15 minutes of the 1-1 draw against Germany and the second half in the 2-1 defeat against Japan. Their university accommodation is superb: elegant, spacious, comfortable, lavish marble everywhere and a short electronic scooter ride from first-class training facilities. A big gym and physio rooms in the « hostel, » plus a vast leisure salon for the players to either while away their free hours or to entertain family members when they’ve had weekly visits. That is if they don’t all head down to the beach — player, wife, kids — like several things to on Saturday.
There’s no comparison with 1999 or 2010. However, now the suffering arrives.
Spain, as confident and harmonious a group as they may be, neither look intense nor ferocious enough to deal with Morocco in a way which reflects the huge gap in the relative achievements of each squad’s players.
There are, at best, three candidates from Walid Regragui’s team (goalkeeper Bono, full-back Achraf Hakimi and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat) who might slide into the best Spain XI. However, the Atlas Lions are compact, aggressive, quick on the counter, confident and now — thanks to Switzerland in September and Japan the other day — Morocco also have the exact template of how to hurt, and possibly beat, Luis Enrique’s team .
La Roja remain good enough in terms of talent, playing ideas, domination of the ball and desire, to knock Morocco out and progress to either another Iberian showdown with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal or a rematch with Switzerland — sides against whom they’ve played a grand total of nine times in the last two years.
And, let’s not beat about the bush, Spain should do just that. The trouble is that, on potentially its last outing, « Lucho-ball » is just a touch deflated.
The coach’s watchwords of « attack, press, ambition » aren’t being given their full meaning. Against Germany he worried that in the last 20 minutes « we lacked the self-confidence to go after another goal and to seal the win. » Against Japan, he spoke about « five minutes of madness » (when Japan turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win), but not enough attention was given to the fact that when Spain were bossing the first half there was a distinct lack of aggressive pressing, of clinical attacking, and of the ambition to put the match to bed while they were clearly superior to their opponents.
Yet there’s a wave of love for Spain’s football from media, pundits and fans. TV analyst Gary Neville’s « superior team, best in possession, best out of possession, best coached » eulogy at half-time against Japan wasn’t out of place because of what happened next, but rather because Spain, by their and their coach’s standards in that first 45 minutes, were slow, toothless, error prone and flat. If you watched Luis Enrique’s body language and yelling at his team you’d have understood that.
I dislike the current « love-in » not because La Roja don’t play attractive, intelligent, attacking interesting football. They do; they stand out for it. At least in terms of a philosophy. But because back in 2010 there was, comparatively, a splurge of criticism for Del Bosque’s soon-to-be world champions.
When Spain snuck through the group and then won 1-0 four times against Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Netherlands there was the consistent, erroneous and dull-minded critique that they were « boring. » In fact, Spain played very similarly then but with two different factors.
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti defends Morocco after Spain finish 2nd in their group and face them in the round of 16.
First, they were hugely better as a squad — more talented, experienced, populated by genuine football legends, and brutally tough-minded. But they played, passed and ran to win, not solely to pull the opponent out. They wanted to take teams apart, even against packed defences.
The second difference: with the exception of Germany, their rivals didn’t want to dance. On poor pitches, almost all their rivals thought they could bog Spain down in a war of attrition and bully them out of the tournament thanks to stodgy, dull tactics. They couldn’t.
In Qatar, sides believe that they can press and harass Luis Enrique’s side, that there will be errors and that Spain, if in distress, won’t quite have the personality or the aggression to pull a deficit back in their favour. They may be right. It’ll be sad if the way Luis Enrique has Spain thinking, trying, inventing and playing ends in the round of 16 of this strange World Cup. His choice whether to go or stay probably won’t be influenced by the result, but the manner of Spain’s playing might. If he leaves.
Morocco, whether the Marathon de Sables or these two countries’ fourth-ever competitive football match (two draws and a single goal win for La Roja) means a test of fortitude, of mentality, of attitude. Are Spain’s players as tough, as determined and driven as their coach?