Just when Spain national coach Luis de la Fuente thought he had earned a break after a rollercoaster first year in the job, Sunday night’s final Euro 2024 qualifier crashed him straight into an unfortunate club vs country row.
A straightforward 3-1 victory over a limited Georgia ensured De la Fuente’s more functional than sparkling Spain side won Group A and will be first seeds for the draw in Hamburg on December 2.
But the night’s major talking point at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla was the potentially very serious knee injury suffered by Barcelona midfielder Gavi, angering the Catalan club — who thought the teenager need not have started both Spain’s qualifiers in this international break.
It was just the latest controversy for De la Fuente, who was appointed last December when federation president Luis Rubiales decided to replace Luis Enrique following Spain’s very disappointing exit to Morocco in the last 16 of World Cup 2022.
The Basque himself admitted that even he had been surprised by Rubiales’ decision to hand him the biggest job in Spanish football given his previous lack of top-level senior management experience.
The completely deserved 2-0 defeat in Scotland last March, in just his second game, brought real concerns over whether he would even survive in the position past the summer.
Edging past Italy and Croatia to win June’s Nations League bought time for the coach to build a new team. Each squad has brought its own selection surprises and novelties. De la Fuente has used 47 players in his 10 games so far, including six different left-backs, with 12 players given senior international debuts.
Some, like Real Sociedad’s French-born centre-back Robin Le Normand and Real Madrid back-up centre-forward Joselu, have become key members of the squad. Others, such as Tottenham right-back Pedro Porro, Granada winger Bryan Zaragoza and former Leeds forward Rodrigo, are very unlikely to be at next summer’s finals in Germany.
A new team spine was constructed along the way. Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simon is the clear first-choice goalkeeper. Le Normand’s usual partner at centre-back is ex-Manchester City centre-back Aymeric Laporte (although his move to Saudi team Al Nassr is an opportunity for Barcelona’s Inigo Martinez). City holding midfielder Rodri is now Spain’s most important player and leader, although Atletico Madrid striker Alvaro Morata wears the armband as he has the most caps.
De la Fuente has resisted local media calls to bring back two former Real Madrid stars — now Sevilla centre-back Sergio Ramos and Real Betis playmaker Isco. Ramos is 37 and has been injured again, but the decision to ignore the back-in-form Isco shows how the Basque likes to work with younger players, who he knows and who are not high maintenance. Real Sociedad duo Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino — who both won Under-21 Euros titles under De la Fuente’s guidance — are also key components of a new lower-profile Spain side.
De la Fuente’s use of Barcelona’s young stars has been his most contentious selection call. First was the fast-tracking of 16-year-old starlet Lamine Yamal into the senior setup. De la Fuente has denied this was to get him four quick caps to end any chance of him switching allegiance to Morocco, but not everyone believes that.
Gavi is the only player to feature in all 10 of De la Fuente’s games so far. The coach offered a hostage to fortune on Saturday by saying “good players never have to rest” when asked whether he might allow the 19-year-old to sit out the game with qualification already secured.
After Gavi limped off midway through the first half, especially when fears grew that he might now miss the rest of the 2023-24 campaign, Barcelona fans and pundits quickly recalled how De la Fuente brought Pedri to the 2021 Olympic Games at the end of his breakthrough season. Pedri has suffered from recurring injuries ever since — to the point he has not yet been fit to play in any Spain squad for the current coach.
The issue dominated the conversation after the game. De la Fuente said he understood that Barcelona would be upset as he was also shocked and saddened at such a serious injury, calling it the hardest moment of his career. But he defended his own selection decisions, pointing out that injuries happen in football and that the media impact is bigger when it is a star at a big club who suffers one.
“If it happened to another player, we’d be talking the same,” he said. “Gavi had not played the previous weekend due to suspension. He was fresh and perfect to play. We always protect players, but it was an accident. Injuries always happen in football. It makes more impact when it is a Gavi, or (Real Madrid’s) Vinicius Junior or (Eduardo) Camavinga. But there is always risk when a player takes to the pitch.”
Whether that is accepted in Barcelona remains to be seen.
This all came just as De la Fuente had appeared to have finally become comfortable in the job. Tactically, he has put his own stamp on the team, mostly by dialling back on the super intense approach and detailed tactical demands of Luis Enrique. The current ‘mister’ has a more straightforward and laid-back personality and approach than his predecessor.
Spain still dominate possession against most opponents, but they now generally use a traditional centre-forward — Morata or Joselu — and score a lot of goals from crosses. This included all three of the goals against Georgia on Sunday night, which came from Le Normand, Ferran Torres and an own goal by Georgia’s Luka Lochoshvili.
They have 21 points from eight Euro 2024 qualifiers, with 25 goals scored and five against. That looks pretty good, especially after the tricky start, but there is an understanding that the group was not so challenging and the breaks have gone Spain’s way. Norway, despite having Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard, were hugely disappointing. A free-kick goal by Scott McTominay which would have put Scotland 1-0 up in the second half of last October’s return against Spain was controversially disallowed.
“We’re one of the teams capable of battling to win the Euros trophy,” said De la Fuente this week. “We’re in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings and want to keep improving. France, Germany, England, Portugal, Italy, like Croatia, are also very competitive sides. And every team who makes the finals will have 11 very good players and you can’t discount a surprise either.”
That intent to give a positive message, while trying not to say anything remotely controversial, is typical of Spain’s current manager. Both his senior players and the executives at the federation are happy to have someone managing the team who does not make too much noise.
De la Fuente’s relationship with the influential Spanish sports media has been a lot better than under Luis Enrique, another positive for the federation. Telling AS recently that he was “super proud to be Spanish, Catholic and a bullfighting fan” was welcomed by the hardcore national team supporters. This came in a moment of loud political protest about a new Socialist-led government relying on support from Catalan nationalists. The Estadio Jose Zorilla in Zaragoza was sold out with fans wrapped in the Spanish national colours on Sunday evening.
Most of the criticism of De la Fuente has come from outside football, or outside Spain, until the row with Barca on Sunday, at least. His applause for Rubiales’ defiant speech after the women’s World Cup has not counted against him. Instead, the men’s squad and their manager bonded together against those outside who thought they should do more to support their female counterparts’ struggles to bring about real change at the federation.
So the doubts over De la Fuente on appointment, especially after the Scotland defeat, had mostly disappeared. Everyone in Spanish football knows this is not a golden generation and expectations are realistic. “It’s not a great team, but De la Fuente has brought calm and stability,” said one agent before Sunday’s game.
Still, with the Spanish federation, there is always a twist. De la Fuente’s current contract runs up until June 30 next year, right in the middle of Euro 2024. Talks over extending are postponed until Rubiales’ permanent successor is chosen. No date has yet been set for that election, with the government currently looking to revise the rules of the vote.
A new RFEF president might want to choose their own new national team boss, especially if an outsider is chosen to bring real reform to the federation. That still seems unlikely and De la Fuente even suggested on Saturday he would like to still be Spain coach when they co-host the 2030 World Cup.
Such long-term plans will have to wait for now, especially after what happened with Gavi. De la Fuente had seemed to set for calmer waters after so many storms in his first year, but being Spain head coach is never so simple.
(Top photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)