Spain need Luis Enrique for his no-nonsense, high-risk approach
Ask the majority of Spain's recent European Championship and World Cup winners what their seminal memory of La Roja playing international football was and it will be Mauro Tassotti trying to elbow the nose right off Luis Enrique's face at the Foxboro Stadium during the 1994 World Cup quarterfinal against Italy. For this wiry, tough, no-nonsense, detail-obsessed Treble-winner to be appointed Spain coach exactly 24 years later, to the day, is symbolic in the extreme.
Back then, Luis Enrique represented the image of a Spain team replete with talent, "ready" -- as far as the pre-tournament coverage of each and every campaign was concerned -- to reach or win any final. But he also embodied the image of an era when, one way or another, La Roja would tumble (or be pushed) out of contention and return home to soul-searching accusations and a national gnashing of teeth.
Hence the fact that from Puyol to Xavi via Xabi Alonso, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta, they've variously admitted that what Spain meant to them, growing up, was that tortured image of Spain's newly appointed coach furiously trying to reach Tassotti and exact revenge in the dying minutes of a 2-1 defeat, then turning in utter disbelief as the Hungarian ref refused to take any action. One iconic image to represent an epoch of frustration, futility, rage and impotence: an era of failure. The "quarterfinal team."
If you weren't around then, just invoke your memories of the mess Spain made of Brazil 2014, the apathy of France 2016 and the risk-averse timidity that saw the 2010 champions slither out of this Russian tournament they could, without question, have won in Moscow next Sunday.
That'll tell you what the "Luis Enrique generation" lived through.
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Luis Enrique played in an era when Spain goals were incorrectly ruled offside, or chalked off for a foul, during quarterfinal eliminations by England and South Korea during Euro '96 and World Cup 2002. The latter left the stench of such incompetence that malfeasance had been alleged by Italian football media.
To recap: thwarted by outrageously dubious refereeing decisions, a broken nose by Tassotti -- only for the referee to ignore the foul despite blood turning the Asturian's shirt tomato red and that same referee, Sandor Puhl, being awarded the subsequent World Cup final despite his incompetence two games later... viva VAR, I say -- and thwarted too by Andoni Zubizarreta producing the worst goalkeeping of his career to allow Nigeria a 3-2 win over Spain at World Cup '98.
That was then. This is now.
What Luis Enrique represents today, as he's appointed to effectively replace Julen Lopetegui rather than stand-in Fernando Hierro, is the wind of change. He is the gust of modernisation. But above all, he represents the continuing tornado that Luis Rubiales, former chief of the players' union and now president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, has brought with him.
That day in Boston 24 years ago, it's true, Lopetegui was on Spain's bench watching Tassotti's brutal skulduggery for which the Italy midfielder would later incur an eight-match FIFA ban. Lopetegui was summarily sacked before Spain faced Portugal, for accepting the Real Madrid job, and the campaign was sunk from that moment.
The man leading the team's protests to the Hungarian official alongside Luis Enrique in 1994 was the currently departing Spanish director of football (and interim manager), Fernando Hierro.
Honourable and dignified but unable: that's the summary of Hierro's 2018 World Cup "rescue" campaign. But look back at Euro '96, and Spain's penalty shootout elimination to England, and you begin to understand why "Lucho" has been hustled into this job ahead of any other candidate.
That day at Wembley there was a reserve goalkeeper watching, with Luis Enrique, from the subs bench: Jose Molina.
The fabled keeper in Atletico Madrid's 1996 Liga/Copa double, winner of the Copa del Rey final for Deportivo La Coruna at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid on the anniversary of Los Blancos' 100th birthday and Champions League semifinalist with Depor until a 1-0 defeat to Jose Mourinho's Porto in 2004: this is Spain's new director of football.
Molina and Rubiales played together at Levante in 2006-07 and their friendship was forged in the heat of adversity. While Valencia's "other" club were fighting to stay up, Rubiales marvelled at Molina's ability to help a modest team draw 1-1 with Barcelona and then win 1-0 away to Fabio Capello's Real Madrid. So far, so good. Levante won the penultimate match of that season in their derbi at home to Valencia, 4-2, in one of the most infamous of those city clashes.
Rubiales and Molina were two of only 18 players left on the pitch with less than an hour gone as the man who kept Molina from playing more international games, Santi Canizares, Oliver Kapo, Roberto Ayala and Spain's most recent (temporary) director of football, Carlos Marchena, were all sent off.
But what became known only gradually was that Rubiales, Molina & Co. were not being paid their salaries. Levante ran up over €15 million debt in unpaid wages and by the following season it was Rubiales who led the squad in a "go slow" approach just after kick-off against Depor and then announced to the world that Levante's players would strike unless there was a deal agreed over missing payments.
Rubiales the representative started there and this is where it has brought him; it's where life has brought Molina, too. As soon as Rubiales offered Molina the director of football job he said "yes, but only if I get to offer Luis Enrique the coaching job."
What Rubiales claimed to be fighting against, both as the head of AFE (Spain's players' union) and then in his campaign to take over at the top of the football federation, was injustice, inequity, corruption, complacency, old habits, cronyism and stultification.
He won his presidential elections in mid-May and immediately unleashed a typhoon.
The controversial 76-year-old head of refereeing appointments in Spain, Victoriano Sanchez Arminio, was promptly replaced by a man 30 years his junior, Carlos Velasco Carballo, who only retired in 2016. While Lopetegui's contract was promptly renewed, in a gesture that now appears both futile and ill-rewarded by the ex-Spain coach, other positions across the FA board of directors -- and particularly within several layers of Spanish FA communications -- were changed at speed. Some of them found out that they were out of work a few days before they'd expected to be on La Roja's plane to Krasnodar.
Luis Enrique's appointment can be both viewed and understood in this sense, along with a number of other significant ways.
Angel Maria Villar, the only previous full-time FA president in Spain for the previous 30 years, invested in continuity: staff, whether excellent or otherwise, were in their posts for a long, long time. Furthermore, the coaches prior to Lopetegui taking over were appointed at the ages of 66 (Luis Aragones) and 57 (Vicente Del Bosque); they won their first trophies at ages 69 and 59, respectively.
Aragones had the job for four years, Del Bosque eight. By contrast, Luis Enrique just turned 48, runs marathons, cycles tens of thousands of kilometres per year, is pin-thin and if he treated the grey in his hair he wouldn't look massively different from the man he was when he stopped playing for FC Barcelona.
Just as Villar appointed men who were at or around his generation, men against whom he did battle as an Athletic Club midfielder, men from his network, that's what Rubiales has allowed Molina to do. Molina and Luis Enrique faced off around 20 times across their respective careers for Atletico/Deportivo (Molina) and Real Madrid/Barcelona (LE): the Asturian won relentlessly against Molina when he was at Atleti and then lost five out of six when they faced each other for Deportivo and Barca.
Without overstating it, Rubiales and Molina have gone for relative youth and modernisation. Rubiales sacked Lopetegui based on his criteria that there would be "transparency, good governance and an end to the old ways." Whether it was the right decision, something I doubt, it was true to his mandate and to his election promises.
There's another clear way to understand this appointment. Molina was effectively the first daring, forward-thinking sweeper-keeper in La Liga. He was the "Johan Cruyff" keeper who never played for Cruyff. Risk-confident, a terrific reader of the game, sweet with his feet, everything about him now (bar perhaps his height) would serve to make him hugely popular and extremely well-paid.
He liked positive risk, he liked playing out from the back, he survived testicular cancer and, although when he returned to work he said "I'll still be the same disagreeable character I was before," he also lives by the idea as a coach that football must be enjoyable.
The kind of football Spain played in all but one of their games in Russia would be anathema to him, and to Luis Enrique. The first thing the Asturian did when taking over at Barcelona was to call Xavi and almost beg him not to move, whether he was heading to the United States or to Qatar. Luis Enrique thoroughly believed in attacking possession football, even if much more vertical and sped-up compared with Pep Guardiola or Tito Vilanova.
He wanted players to use the ball creatively, risk forward passes to the front trident of Suarez, Messi and Neymar and use possession to test and tear apart the opposition. He wanted pressing. Waves of it.
Neither would the new Spain coach have tolerated the diffident, risk-free, limp football with which La Roja departed Russia. However there are interesting hurdles to jump.
Gerard Pique reversed his ennui for football when Luis Enrique took over at the Camp Nou. Yet the Catalan centre-half has also sworn that his days with Spain are now over. Is that reversible?
A tranche of Luis Enrique's players, who'll start under the new boss with fixtures against England and Croatia this Autumn, come from Real Madrid. He's an alumnus of that school too but ever since he left the Bernabeu for Barcelona he's been seen, and has done little to diminish the idea, that he's an anti-Madridista. How will Madrid's players -- Isco was sent off in a Clasico against Luis Enrique's Barcelona for booting Neymar up the backside -- react to having this aggressive Barca icon in charge of their international future? How will Sergio Ramos feel?
Ultimately, I'll bet the appointment is good news for Alvaro Morata, good for Iago Aspas, brilliant for Sergi Roberto, excellent for Asensio, Rodrigo (Atleti) and for Thiago too. But how will the prickly, determined coach get on with the ambitious, self-confident and all-powerful president as they get to know each other?
How about Luis Enrique and the media? That is stony ground, adversarial like Butch and Tom in Tom and Jerry. Not always fighting but prone to vicious bouts.
A quarter of a century on from Spain exiting a World Cup with Luis Enrique's bloody nose, Spain's most recent World Cup exit brings in that man to help staunch the flow of failure in the past three major tournaments. Luis Enrique is not to everyone's taste but there'll be no diffidence, no half-measures and, most important of all, no risk-free football.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.