HomeSportsFootballEuro 2024: Spain's 'band of brothers' a 'serious candidate'

Euro 2024: Spain’s ‘band of brothers’ a ‘serious candidate’


In Basque sporting culture, the team ethic is everything. They even have a word that defines the closeness and camaraderie that is the hallmark of their ethos.

That word is ‘cuadrilla’, a word that implies much more than just friendship but rather a ‘one for all and all for one’ unity.

This ‘band of brothers’ mentality explains perfectly Spain’s squad selection for Euro 2024, made by coach Luis de la Fuente, someone who developed his footballing career in the pitches of Athletic Club, one of the two Basque teams, alongside Real Sociedad, represented by eight players in the squad.

They do not need to be told what a cuadrilla is.

De la Fuente looking for more respect

Born in Haro in the region of La Rioja, a town more accustomed to producing vintage wines than great footballers, De la Fuente took over from Luis Enrique shortly after the Qatar World Cup that saw Spain eliminated on penalties in the last 16.

The previous eight years had seen him in charge of hugely successful under-19, under-21 and under-23 sides.

He was not technically a Basque, but close enough to being one to the extent he was considered eligible to play for Athletic Bilbao for nine years between 1976 and 1987 and then again from 1991-1993.

Not everyone was convinced he was the right choice and defeat by Scotland in the European qualifiers in only his second match seemed to confirm their reservations. But just three months later, Spain lifted the Nations League trophy after beating Croatia on penalties.

Recently the Spanish Federation announced the renewal of his contract until 2026, to put to bed one of the anomalies created by the recent Luis Rubiales debacle.

In the World Cup celebrations Rubiales, then the country’s football federation president, planted a kiss on the lips of player Jenni Hermoso – a kiss he says was consensual but she says was not.

De la Fuente’s support for the disgraced former Spanish FA president in a meeting of the federation, where Rubiales’ passionate refusal to resign culminated in the Spain boss being among those to give him a standing ovation, was almost certainly not something he will look back on as his finest hour.

His new contract, which was due to expire on 30 June, was finally confirmed 11 days before Spain’s Euro 2024 opener against Croatia on Saturday.

De la Fuente has renewed his contract at a lower rate than he expected after his success at the job, something that has bothered him. In news conferences he often sounds like someone who is asking for more respect and recognition.

His players speak highly of him and only 10 players who participated in the last World Cup make his squad this time around. The only World Cup winner still around is Jesus Navas.

De la Fuente is a democratic leader who likes to listen to assistants and leaders of the group. His preferred formation is 4-2-3-1, but Rodri – the leader of this team on the pitch – likes to play on his own in midfield and that will push Pedri closer to the main striker in a 4-3-3 line up.

While Luis Enrique’s World Cup side was a possession-based team with a surprising lack of alternatives, De la Fuente has insisted on giving his team a variation of solutions.

They can play inside with the likes of Dani Olmo, Pedri and Fabian Ruiz, but also mix it up with game changers such as Lamine Yamal (who will celebrate his 17th birthday on 13 July, the day before the final takes place) and Nico Williams on the flanks. Both will start against Croatia.

Rodri is Spain’s team leader

Manchester City’s Rodri has established himself in the vital defensive midfield position, as indispensable to his country as he is to his club, and a more than worthy successor to Sergio Busquets.

Alvaro Morata may well be Spain’s captain but no one doubts for a second that Rodri is the team’s leader. A thinking man with a winning mentality.

Focus has never been a problem for Rodri.

As a schoolboy on Atletico Madrid’s books, he found himself with two hours to kill after school finished and before training started. Time he used for studying in the office of the president, Enrique Cerezo, who made a space for him.

Just as he was beginning his professional career with Villarreal, he finished a course in business administration. He was 19 years old.

Pedri ‘in a great moment’

Jordi Alba has also called it a day and in come Chelsea’s Marc Cucurella and Bayer Leverkusen’s Alex Grimaldo, while in midfield everyone’s gaze is on the prodigiously talented Pedri.

Despite having been been plagued by a succession of injuries, Pedri has always been a key part of De la Fuente’s plan.

Regarded by just about everyone at Barcelona as the natural successor to Andres Iniesta, Pedri played an unacceptable 73 games in his first campaign before his body broke down.

Nine injuries over the past three years – eight of them muscular – have seen him miss a total of 85 games. “The problem is not Pedri,” said someone within the Barcelona camp. “It’s the permanent chaos at Barcelona. The injury management has been very bad, several times they made him play early when they shouldn’t.”

As recently as the last campaign, the Canary Islander suffered three injuries and missed 25 games. De la Fuentes kept in constant touch with the midfielder throughout his injury nightmares.

When asked if he was frightened of breaking down again, Pedri replied: “I think the ones that are frightened are the press because that’s what they are constantly talking about.”

Of all the current La Roja players he is the one with the fewest minutes in 2023-24 (2,148) as opposed to Rodri who has 4,935.

“It has been a complicated season, but I am in a great moment,” said Pedri, before scoring twice in Spain’s 5-1 friendly win against Northern Ireland in Mallorca on Saturday.

Spain’s collective spirit and togetherness

It is nine years since De la Fuente guided Spain to European Under-19 Championship glory, five since he won the European Under-21 championship, and just under three since his young side won a silver medal in the 2020 Olympics.

His squad selection is about much more than merely picking individual stars but rather about building a team around those he knows and trusts.

It was in the Greek city of Katerini in July 2015 that De la Fuente’s Spain won the Under-19 Euros with a double midfield pivot comprising Rodri and Mikel Merino, a combination that is still very recognisable today.

The two players have accumulated almost 30 matches together in all categories of the national team under the guidance of De la Fuente.

Goalkeeper Unai Simon has also been with De la Fuente since the win in Greece, Cucurella was the captain of his Under-21-winning side, alongside other mainstays like Martin Zubimendi, Mikel Oyarzabal, Merino, Fabian and Olmo.

Ferran Torres, not always first choice at Barcelona, is another De la Fuente man whom the coach continues to call and who always responds with goals.

His pursuit of the collective spirit, and for opting for who he knows and trusts the best, explains why players such as Pau Cubarsi, Aleix Garcia, Marcos Llorente, Pedro Porro and Pau Torres failed to make the final squad.

Recently, Rodri said: “The objective is to win. And return that competitiveness to Spain. Spain is a serious candidate. The group and this team are growing a lot.”

Now though the talking is over and Spain expects.

Can they bring back the European Championship trophy for the first time since 2012?

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