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Soccer

Spain Has Nothing Left To Fear

Spain's players celebrate their fifth goal during the UEFA EURO 2020 round of 16 football match between Croatia and Spain at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen on June 28, 2021.
Photo by Stuart Franklin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Spain is one of the most talented teams in these Euros. It’s a group with stars and depth and a well-embedded playing style that, at its best, can trigger an avalanche of goals. Spain is also a complete head case as a bunch, prone to wild shifts of confidence. As a team it can’t defend to save its life, can go long stretches blowing chances, and features two players—one between its own sticks, the other closest to the opponent’s—with a weakness for massive, baffling, game-changing, morale-cratering errors. Spain was all of those things against against Croatia, sometimes at the exact same time. The result was the most ridiculous, hilarious, and frankly stupid match of the entire tournament—and probably its best, too.

Where do you start with a game that had eight goals, several huge mistakes, some genuinely world-class moments of quality, and almost literally everything in between? Probably at the start, with what was the strangest moment of the whole affair. After an opening 20 minutes during which Spain looked a lot like itself—that is, exerting effortless control of the match and creating a couple golden scoring opportunities that they completely whiffed on—goalkeeper Unai Simón did this:

This counts as an own goal on Pedri, and while it’s not a great idea to play a hard, bouncing pass from a ways away straight into your keeper, it’s also the kind of pass a modern keeper should be able to control in his sleep. The blame, then, lays with Simón, who has made a habit of unforgivable lapses of concentration and unforced errors at Athletic Club. Moments before Simón’s boner, Spain’s other gaffe machine, Álvaro Morata, spurned a great chance when he had an open header from just a few yards out and he somehow managed to aim his effort directly parallel to the goal. It wasn’t a gimme chance, but him missing so egregiously, and doing so right before Simón’s fuck-up, meant Spain’s collective confidence in itself and in its forwards’ ability to score an equalizer had to be at something close to rock bottom.

Confidence works in funny ways, though. Maybe because things went just about as poorly as possible, in the exact way Spain had reason to worry about—a big miss from the chronic sitter-misser, and a big error from a chronically error-prone keeper—the team reacted remarkably well. It was as if Spain’s nightmare had come true, and it wasn’t quite as scary as imagined, so the team could play without pressure or expectation or fear, since the worst had already happened.

Bizarrely buoyed of confidence, especially after Pablo Sarabia’s equalizer in the 38th minute, for about an hour following the own goal Spain was flying. Sarabia moved to his more natural position on the right wing and became the most dangerous attacker on the pitch. Pedri shook off any feelings of complicity on the own goal and started balling again, floating between the lines and finding teammates in space, looking like anything other than an 18-year-old with only a single season of top-level experience. Simón even redeemed himself with a handful of spectacular stops, flexing the feline reflexes that make him rightfully Spain’s starting goalkeeper. In the 57th minute César Azpilicueta headed in the go-ahead goal, and Ferran Torres scored what felt like the dagger in the 76th. Spain had suffered a comically awful start to the match and endured, and was about 15 minutes away from what was trending toward a fabulous win.

But things wouldn’t go so easily. Croatia kept the faith and continued attacking Spain’s embarrassingly compliant defense. Mislav Orsic made the score 3–2 in the 85th minute, which at the time felt more like it would renew Spain’s focus than threaten the result. But Croatia kept on hacking, and two minutes into stoppage time scored a shock equalizer:

If letting Croatia back into a match that should’ve been over ate into the confidence Spain had spent the rest of the match fortifying, then the Spaniards didn’t show it. Croatia’s attack-minded substitutions helped them fight back to a draw, but it hobbled their efforts to compete at a less break-neck pace. Ten minutes into extra time, it was Morata’s turn for redemption, when he blasted in La Roja‘s fourth goal of the day in stunning fashion:

Three minutes after that goal, Mikel Oyarzabal added another, giving Spain its second consecutive five-goal outing. Croatia had no more to give, and so the match ended, 5–3.

It was a nutty, wild, entertaining game. And, if it helped exorcize Spain’s demons through direct confrontation, it could be exactly what the team needed to unlock its potential. This was Spain at its best and its worst, and if it can do a better job avoiding the latter and maximizing the former, then there’s no reason why Spain can’t grab a few more wins yet this summer.

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