Spain won’t be the same without character of Luis Enrique

DOHA, Qatar — Luis Enrique doesn’t like cheese. He likes eggs. He really likes eggs. In fact, he eats five or six every day. And if you think that’s funny, he thinks it’s a lot worse that you’re eating all those petit suisse. Don’t put onions in his tortilla, he says; and in Spain, where with or without onions is a matter of state, it’s quite a…well…statement. His favorite player is David Villa. Or Ferran Torres, if only because his daughter is dating him – and yes, Luis Enrique revealed that – but he shouldn’t worry. If Torres is stupid enough to celebrate a goal with his thumb in his mouth [to signal the arrival of a baby]he’s off the team instantly, never to come back.

After all, why would Luis Enrique want to be a grandpa when he’s already the Mac Daddy? Well he was. Streamed on Twitch at 8pm every night, sat there in his big gamer chair, 52 goes to 15, he was the coolest cat at the world cup. Come to think of it, pretty much the only thing he never told us was what he thinks of cats, even though they’re everywhere in Qatar. Although we can probably guess that he’s on the other side of that other big divide: the right side. Because when it was all over, he said he just wanted to go home to his dogs.

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Unfortunately it was over far too quickly.

He set off on his bike – there’s a 65-kilometer circuit from Qatar University – and posted pictures of himself shirtless. What if you had a body like that at his age – or any age – maybe you would too. Every morning he flew to training on his scooter. He spent the night before last smashing the clichés everywhere, like a media mythbuster. Speaking of myths, he talked about milkmaids and Pelayo, the Asturian warrior who, according to legend, started the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, beginning at Covadonga, in 711. In the end, Spain was conquered by Morocco.

Luis Enrique is a D—head. He says so himself. He was also a star. And now he’s unemployed.

Not even two days after the Spaniards were eliminated from the World Cup, the Spanish Football Association (RFEF) confirmed: their coach, whose contract has expired, will not continue in office. The decision to get to that point was his: he had turned down an extension a year ago when they thought he was brilliant, when the RFEF was desperate for him to continue and when even those outside waiting for him were ready were to get him They had to put their knives aside for a moment. The decision not to let him get past that point was theirs.

And so after four years – cut short by personal tragedy, the death of his nine-year-old daughter after a five-month battle with bone cancer – Luis Enrique is no longer Spain’s coach. At least he can now return to the Asturias derby, scheduled for the day before the World Cup final. They might have had to book a fast return flight for Real Oviedo against Sporting Gijon. As it turned out, they had to charter a flight home, but it was only one option. “I’m very proud of my team,” said the coach as he left. He did not return to the Catalan coast where he lives; Instead, he stayed in Madrid, where he was told it was over.

His tenure had ended in failure, which was inevitable. It could have been different, of course: with 10 seconds left, Pablo Sarabia hit the post. She would have made it. It happened again, Marcos Llorente emphasized: without the penalty shoot-out, Spain would have been in the final of the Euro – and who knows what would have happened then – and still at this World Cup. And yet it was over. Luis Enrique himself had said that although the line is fine, the penalty shootout is not just a lottery. Football is funny: the team that started the tournament with seven points couldn’t even get one from the penalty spot.

And that was sort of a distillation of Spain under Luis Enrique: sort of always balancing somewhere between being really brilliant, being the best there was, and really…well, not. Ultimately, it wasn’t a good World Cup: Spain played a thousand passes and rarely scored a goal. Some of those familiar errors reappeared, which was odd because it was supposed to be different; not only tiki takabut a little more like him: edgy, perceptive, unafraid.

Should be different? He definitely is, even though it collapsed out on the pitch. There was a moment in the media center here when a British journalist sat down and said, “Dude, why is Luis Enrique so cool?” The answer was inevitable: tell some Spaniards that. Many of them were targeting Luis Enrique. They seemed to take offense at everything and take him extremely seriously, seemingly unaware of how much he was messing with them. In the end, some of them almost seemed happy (?!) that Spain had lost, that he was gone. Of course, in a country that loves debate and division, that too had become one.

Now both could be right, right? For a time, even those who said they didn’t like him had to admit that he was good at it. But then this happened. And that was ultimately a bad World Cup. One could go back to the EURO and perhaps say something similar, albeit far less definitively, despite having reached the semi-finals: they had just come out of the group, then won one game in overtime and another on penalties. But then they liked to play the against Italy, even if they lost. Now they played like This.

There are mistakes in admitting having analytics. There is also something simpler, perhaps more profound: Spain have won just three World Cup games since their 2010 coronation, none of them in the knockout rounds. Is that just their reality, their level?

And what does that say about Luis Enrique that for a while we wondered if they could really win the World Cup? That he built a team – and the great obsession was precisely that it was a team, not just a selection of players – that reached the semi-finals of the Euros, the final of one Nations League and the Final Four of another. That they beat six against Germany and Croatia, seven against Costa Rica. That with a generation of players who weren’t the generation of players, he did this.

Speaking of generations, whatever else we say, the legacy is there, even if in some cases their clubs have been less sure. Alex Balde is 19; Ansu Fati is 20; Nico Williams is 20; Yeremy Pino is 18; Pedri turned 20 in Doha; Gavi is 18. When you look at Spain’s squad, you wonder how many are at the very highest level. Perhaps you are imagining Gavi and Pedri? It was Luis Enrique who fielded Pedri for the Euros at 18. It was Luis Enrique who played Gavi against Italy, aged 17, with just 374 senior minutes to his credit, and achieved such a feat. It was Luis Enrique who kept playing him until the rest of the world said, “Whoa, look at that boy.”

“The children playing are brave, not me,” said Luis Enrique. But he played them again and again.

When he tricked Gavi, they thought he was crazy. Actually he was right.

And maybe a little crazy too. You could see that every night on his stream, a platform that eased the pressure on his players that he somehow never really got a foothold on – although a radio station rigged recordings to try to fake it. Instead he showed things that no coach has, became a star of this competition, maybe the only coach that is. As much as the media whined that this wasn’t the place, he did the same in press conferences, each a lesson that offered depth and analysis and character.

There was ample opportunity to listen to him. And if it did, then there was a method, all right. Not just eggs and yogurts and Have sex, but no orgies. And yes, he said that too, cackling. He was persuasive even if you didn’t agree. His players believed in it: Sometimes, despite all the commitment to an idea, it sounded a bit like a cult. Even if – and there is no way around it – his team was not what it should have been in the end.

Luis Enrique led, and he did it his own way. From the platform, to the screen, to the walkie-talkies, and to the exit. It’s been wild for a while, and it won’t be again, that’s for sure. Spain won’t be the same without character of Luis Enrique

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