When Luis Enrique announces his Spain squad for the World Cup on Friday, the soccer world will be ready for it. This Teflon-tough, single-minded man loves to defy people’s expectations and lives to thwart his many enemies. We’re talking about someone who draws strength from criticism and controversy like the cartoon character Popeye grew muscles after chowing down on a can of spinach.
So when the Spain coach reads out the 26 names selected, whether the talented but injury-plagued Ansu Fati, who was left out of the final squad, will go to Qatar, Spain’s coach and the 36-all will be on the edge of their seats. Will Real Sociedad be angered by risking a move for Mikel Oyrzabal, despite a year-old defender Sergio Ramos being sidelined and the forwards having not played since March?
But if you’re interested in the future of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Manchester City, Liverpool or any of Europe’s leading elite clubs, there’s another frisson that should intrigue you. Because this may be the last Spanish reserve that reads “lucho”.
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Given how great he has been in charge La Roja — semi-finalists in Euro 2020, finalists in the 2021 Nations League, a repeat of the last four in the 2023 Nations League semi-finals next June — and with relatively limited resources, there will be plenty of fans and observers around Spain hoping this isn’t the case. . Beginning of an extension Adios. But the truth is that the smart, driven and aggressive 52-year-old is out of contract with the Spanish FA at the end of the World Cup.
All attempts to renew his deal have so far been rejected. Already, the drums in Spanish football are beating the message that Atleti are desperate to cope with the diminishing returns of the Diego Simeone regime by asking Luis Enrique if he would like to return to club football after his stint in Qatar.
All this a few days ago, when former Real Madrid, Valencia and national team goalkeeper Santiago Canizares said on the radio, “Perhaps the best thing for ‘Cholo’. [Simeone] and Atlético to part their ways — not to stagnate. They haven’t played good football for a few seasons. One name comes to mind with the figure Atleti must handle, and that is Luis Enrique.
Also, if Luis Enrique looks to be on the verge of a return to club football, I know a La Liga-winning, European Cup finalist with a huge Barca past who believes Barcelona president Joan Laporta will have a serious dilemma over whether to watch such a game. The iconic Camp Nou player and coach reinforces one of his enemies, or whether he should strike first by re-enlisting him instead.
It’s the opposite at the moment that the Spain coach enjoys a very attractive lifestyle: quality time with family in his Mediterranean village, the ability to pursue his almost maniacal drive to stay fit, lean, healthy and balanced with bursts of competitive, intense football activity. It allows him to throw all his energy into a project without the daily, weekly, monthly wear and tear that all leading club trainers suffer from.
However, his Spain squad — heavily reliant on an overplayed and underpressured Barcelona midfield of Gavi, Sergio Busquets and Pedri — excelled in Qatar’s group games against Costa Rica, Germany and Japan, and indeed have a very impressive “defence . net” chance to win a trophy as early as June against Croatia, Italy or the hosts Netherlands in next year’s UEFA Nations League.
It’s easy to imagine Luis Enrique renewing his contract until then or even longer, but it’s easy to name clubs that would allow him to leave without compensation if given the chance to take over as coach. What could this mean? Simply put, any club interested in his services, either immediately or for the 2023-24 season, needs to push for the position at this point.
Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales’ final words on the subject were encouraging. It felt like he was about to impose his will — or his ego — on the situation, as he did with Julen Lopetegui a few days before Spain’s start in Russia during the 2018 World Cup.
Rubiales told a radio show:[Luis Enrique] Could stay or not stay. It may be because of his decision or ours [the FA] determine. It’s part of football and he’ll understand if it’s our decision, just like we understand if it’s his.”
Now, I’m not an agent or employment lawyer, but Rubiales’ words “We want him to stay, it’s imperative that he knows how important he is to us… We’ll find a way to convince him. Wait…”
Pep Guardiola is preparing to join Manchester City for an explosive, long run, perhaps because he now realizes he is about to enjoy a second “Messi-esque” experience thanks to Erling Haaland.
Although Lionel Messi and Haaland have no physical similarities and completely different playing styles, what connects them is their uncanny ability to take games away from their opponents. Why wouldn’t you want to ride that wave a few super-successful times? However, if Guardiola wants to fulfill one of his dreams, coaching Brazil (or even England) to a World Cup victory in 2026, there is no better candidate to extend it than Luis Enrique with his initial work.
Attitude, mentality, football philosophy, and an unfailing willingness to promote and believe in talent regardless of age: Guardiola and Luis Enrique, former Barca teammates, have many things in common.
Who knows who Liverpool are going to buy, how soon or how Jurgen Klopp feels about the potential change of defender? But when Klopp finally decides to take his much-discussed sabbatical and travel the world with his wife Ulla, Luis Enrique will again be an attractive candidate there too.
Even after he and his family mourned the loss of his daughter Xana in 2019, Spain’s coaching has been an important part of his recovery from the most traumatic family bereavement as he tries to regain his talent and volcanic energy. Cannot be ignored. It’s the cold hard truth: he’s an extremely good coach, very good at his profession, someone who relentlessly seeks to find small margins of improvement to play a forward-thinking and passionate brand of football.
In the past he told me: “The most important idea for my coach is to ‘strike.’ When my staff and I select any team, we first look at what our players can give in attack, the concept is ‘pressure.’ When, we can pressure the opponent and win it back.
“The third critical idea is ‘ambition.’ By that I mean that my team plays with the same attitude wherever they are facing, whatever the score. We attack and defend in every game. So now I have an attacking philosophy that takes risks and asks the players to play to the opposition and be decisive in a match.”
When he reads this, he will be angry. None of this is the subject of him wanting Spain to punch their weight (over the top) in Qatar over the next month, which brings us back to his squad announcement.
It’s a year since his inclusion of 17-year-old Gavi in the Nations League squad to face European champions Italy was roundly mocked by some in the Madrid press. I heard some journalists talking after the manager’s news conference, they literally believed the Spanish coach was talking about picking a kid with very few Barcelona first team appearances and to rile up the ‘anti-Lucho’ media.
They are wrong, and wild. Now, Gavi has 12 national teams and is a central part of Spain’s World Cup campaign. Could there be something similar this time?
And then there’s Ramos. The former Madrid captain had a period when he was a bit obsessed with statistics, amassing his more than 180 caps and his unbeaten international tally. Luis Enrique thought the world of Ramos as a defender, as a leader, as a professional footballer. Guys like those two don’t do “love”, but this is the next best thing.
Ramos told Luis Enrique ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Kosovo in March 2021 that he was fine and fit to come on as a substitute. He played the last four minutes of a 3-1 win, returned to his club injured, missed weeks for Madrid, and Luis Enrique felt like the wool was pulled over his eyes. The defender has not represented Spain since.
Now he is fit and playing well for PSG La Roja Left-footed centre-backs have a surplus, but not the right-footed partner they need. Before PSG faced Juventus in a recent Champions League match, Ramos admitted: “Everyone knows how important it is for me to play for my country: I’m fit and feel good, but it’s up to the manager.”
Will Luis forgive Enrique Ramos, recall him and reinstate him as captain? It’s a massive call, and one that needs to be right: there’s no gray area where two men with such boring characters exist.
Keep your eyes on this story. At Euro 2020, Spain scored five points twice, scored an own-goal of the tournament, lost a dramatic penalty and one. In the last Nations League, they defeated the European champions and rattled the cage of world champions. Luis Enrique has never been free from controversy, intensity or entertainment, and never will be. His players respect him and are so committed that if this tournament is his last with Spain, win, lose or draw, it will be fiery.