Manchester United
12:00 PM UTC
Game Details

Pique makes his point, De Gea takes over as No. 1 and Iniesta inspires

Spain's opening game was a 1-0 win against the Czech Republic, secured by Gerard Pique's late winner. Sid Lowe looks back at some of the main talking points.

Pique the national hero

It was over an hour since the game ended but, while he waited to take a drug test, Gerard Pique was still on the pitch, playing with his young son at the end of the Toulouse stadium where he scored the winning goal. Milan Pique was dressed in a Spain shirt, something his father had pointed out as he came off the pitch having got the 87th minute goal that gave la seleccion an opening-game win for the first time in four tournaments.

Pique has been whistled by some Spain fans over the last few months. It has been justified by some as a response to his supposed lack of Spanish feeling and his Catalan character -- he supported the Catalans' right to have a referendum on independence, though never actually said that he supported independence itself -- but it actually started last year when, in the aftermath of Barcelona's treble win, he cracked a joke at the expense of Cristiano Ronaldo and rapper Kevin Roldan.

Among Spain fans there are more Madrid supporters and sympathisers than Barcelona ones, which helps explain the reaction to Ronaldo/Roldan comment. Pique has admitted that he can't help winding up Madrid and his provocative comments, plus his activity on social media, have not always been well received -- not least by Sergio Ramos, who has publicly responded on occasion.

But while Ramos and others were not always impressed, privately things were not as bad as they seemed. Ramos had previously admitted that he and Pique had talked about the confrontations that occurred during the time that Jose Mourinho was Real Madrid manager and drawn a line under them, but also admitted that the pair weren't exactly likely to go out for a drink together.

When they met at an event late last year, right at the time when talk of serious division re-emerging was at its most intense, they embraced and had a bit of a giggle together -- away from the cameras, away from the media. This was not an act staged for public consumption.

Gerard Pique's first Spain goal since 2009 secured victory for the European champions against the Czech Republic.

The whistles for Pique continued in matches, though, right up to Spain's final warm-up game against Georgia. And then in the closing moments of the opening game at Euro 2016, there he was. No one was whistling now.

"Great Pique" ran the cover of El Mundo Deportivo; "And now what?" said Sport. Both are Barcelona papers, who like to keep club rivalries alive and are very clear whose side they are on, so their response was expected.

In Madrid, AS ran on "Thanks, Pique," while Marca used one of the player's preferred tools: the emoticon. A line of them blew him kisses and the cover ran: "No need to say more." 

The newspaper ABC, by contrast, decided that the national team would not have a place on their cover. Had it really stuck in their throat so much that it was Pique who got the goal? El Mundo called him a "national hero." The double meaning was lost on no one.

After the game, Andres Iniesta said that Pique's commitment was unquestioned. He has won three tournaments with Spain, playing 75 games. When the ball had hit the net earlier, Sergio Ramos leapt onto his shoulders in celebration and the fans went wild. It makes a great photo and it also made for a great tweet: "I suppose I don't have to say any more ... we're a magnificent team," said Pique.

De Gea takes over in goal

One of David De Gea's teammates once described the goalkeeper as probably the "coldest" player he had ever known. It was meant as a compliment; they are good friends. De Gea, he said, never, ever seems to get nervous. He never seems under pressure. His head is never turned; there never seem to be any doubts. No matter what happens, he's the same. Nothing seems to get to him. He missed out on joining Real Madrid at the very last minute, the move he had sought to force through instead falling through, and then he had gone back to play for Manchester United as if nothing had happened.

But then nothing like the allegations he faces regarding his involvement in a sexual assault investigation had ever hung over him before. This was serious enough that some had come to doubt that he would continue in France. De Gea faced the media in a press conference, which he opened by describing the allegations as "lies, all false". 

The intention was to leave it behind and carry on but was that possible? Faced with a decision on who to start between Iker Casillas and De Gea, Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque admitted that, if he thought De Gea's performance might be affected, he would act; if not, he would "do what we were going to do before." The answer came a couple of hours before kickoff on Monday. As expected, what he was "going to do before" was play De Gea.

David De Gea won just his 10th international cap in Spain's Euro 2016 opener.

For much of the game, it was hard to judge if he had been affected. De Gea didn't even get a touch from open play for 24 minutes and didn't get the ball in his hands until the 34th. For the immense majority of the time, the ball was at the other end of the pitch, yet he did ultimately make a contribution: three shots, three saves. The last of them, in the 92nd minute, was vital. Superb, too.

At the full time whistle, he looked to the sky, cheering. Casillas ran on and sought him out for congratulations. "It was a bit odd looking back and not seeing Iker in goal," Sergio Ramos admitted. It will soon feel normal. Almost two years after Del Bosque announced a "gentle transition," it is finally complete. De Gea wears 13 but he is Spain's No. 1 at last.

Iniesta inspires yet again

"Iniesta! Iniesta! Iniesta!" The chant was a eulogy that could also have been an instruction. What's the plan? Give the ball to Andres, of course. And so Spain's players did, over and over. Up in the stands of the Municipal Stadium, the notes scribbled on a pad told a story, with two words repeated often, and invariably together: "lovely" and "Iniesta." Smooth, too.

Iniesta, lovely ball, Juanfran in. Iniesta, lovely shuffle. Iniesta smooth run. Iniesta, shoved, somehow still got it. Iniesta, lovely ball. To [David] Silva, to Nolito, to [Alvaro] Morata, to Juanfran....

And on it went. All the way to the last, lovely ball, the one to Pique that won the game.

Iniesta passed and ran and appeared to be everywhere, drawing defenders in before stepping away smoothly. One of Pep Guardiola's closest collaborators insists that, while much is made of the first-time passing that is part of the style of Spain and Barcelona, Iniesta often does the opposite; he has what they described as pausa -- pause -- and is as likely to wait until the last possible moment before he releases, as if saying: "to me, defenders; to me, responsibility". There is a reason why pictures appear of him looking surrounded. It is, in part, because he wants to be. And that is when he gives the ball to a teammate, now in the space that the pausa produced.

Andres Iniesta was player of the tournament at Euro 2012 and began this tournament in impressive fashion.

Iniesta does so, this coach says, because he can. He may come across as the most modest, quietest and least demonstrative of players, but somewhere deep down he knows he is better than everyone else. Even Lionel Messi admits that, when things are not working, he looks to Iniesta. Spain's players look even more; to listen to them talk about him after Tuesday's game was to witness admiration. These are among the best players in the world but still they think he's different: "Spectacular," Silva said. "It's very easy to play with Andres," Nolito added.

You can always give Iniesta the ball and he will give it back. When it is right to. There's no fear, no nervousness from him. The attention from the opposition does not worry him; he welcomes it. It helps him play the right pass at the right time. Helps him make it, too. The Czechs worked to close spaces, so Iniesta opened new ones and then occupied them, either with a ball threaded through gaps that few others saw, let alone traversed, or with himself; it didn't matter. Yet it always mattered; every pass and every touch.

And not just because there is joy in the play, in the aesthetics, but also because it was effective: Finding a way through was far from easy. When Spain did, it was Iniesta -- with Juanfran at times -- who invariably did so. When, eventually, Spain got their goal, it was created by Iniesta: "What a pass! What class!" Pique said.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.


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