Luis Enrique was the last to know, or so he claimed. It was after midnight before he found out just how close he and his team had come to disaster at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, the realisation caught on cameras. How had he felt during those three minutes when Spain were out of the World Cup, he was asked in the post-match press conference after his team’s 2-1 defeat by Japan. What was going through his mind? Instead of an answer, there was an “eh?” and another question. “Three minutes out, why?!” he replied.
A conversation followed in which only Luis Enrique’s half could be heard properly, the journalist’s microphone having been handed back. Usefully, it served as proof, evidence of his approach, the single-mindedness that sets him apart. That at least was the way he was playing it. “You didn’t know?” he was asked. “No,” the coach said. “I’m not focused on the other game; I’m only concentrating on mine…
Were we knocked out at some point? When? Why? … Costa Rica were winning 2-1? … You see? Well, fantastic… Of course. I didn’t know. At no point did I find out. My discourse is sincere. I didn’t come here to speculate. I’m not happy that we lost to Japan. I want the best from my team, to win every game… [if I had known we were] out three minutes, I would have had a heart attack.”
Luis Enrique had already spoken to the media by then: there are pitchside positions to go through before coaches get to the press conference room, and although it might not have been expressed explicitly, that momentary elimination had been implicit. If he really didn’t know, others did. What was happening in the other game, where Costa Rica briefly led, was put on the giant screens and when Jordi Alba came on after 67 minutes, he was the bearer of bad news.
“I was looking at the scoreboard and I could see halfway through the second half that we were out,” Pedri admitted. Jordi came on and said that we had to score, that we were out. We wanted to score but it didn’t come.”
Did Luis Enrique really not know? There was something in that post-match exchange which felt a little like protesting too much. By then, it was easy to go all conspiratorial, even if only with tongues wedged firmly in cheeks. Spain had been beaten by Japan but things had turned out rather nicely. Sometimes it’s better to lose and for all that the coach talked about wanting to win always, this was one of those times. Perhaps Spain had pulled off an elaboration heist. Maybe it was all an act, Luis Enrique playing the part of Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mastermind of our time.
Nah. Maybe it wasn’t of course, but it was fun to imagine and, boy, had it worked out. After all, Spain had gone through anyway and, by losing, knocked out Germany. Finishing second instead of first meant facing Morocco and possibly Portugal rather than Croatia and probably Brazil. Theirs was now the easier side of the draw, or so it is thought. They had even earned themselves an extra day’s rest. And Luis Enrique said “this punch in the face might be good, helping us realize that this is the World Cup”. Asked if this defeat would knock their confidence, Pau Torres replied: “No, not at all. The opposite: this puts us on alert.”
And who says that Morocco is easier? And is ending up on France and England’s side of the draw really a good thing? “That reading of things is a trap,” the coach said. Pedri added: “There were a lot of things missing from us. They were very intense and left us very little space.” Asked what he had felt sitting on the bench, knowing that Spain were heading out, César Azpilicueta said: “That we had to turn it round as soon as possible! It’s hard to create optimism after a defeat like this. Now we need a cold head. Let’s hope this is useful for us in the future.”
“It was five minutes, no more,” Luis Enrique insisted afterwards. He said the game had gone “mad” and that can happen when a team “has nothing to lose”. Spain had been caught in that moment, unable to control it. Worse, he said they had gone into “collapse mode” and that is a concern. “Japan scored two and if they had needed three, they would have got three,” he said. “We are a long way from where we want to be.”
Only they are where they want to be, of course: in the last 16. The impression was a bad one but they were still standing, still there. Did you know how close you came to elimination, Álvaro Morata was asked. It was only five minutes after full time but he insisted: “There’s no point in remembering that. It’s done. Sometimes you just have to get through the bad moments together and we did that today. We have to wipe out all the toxic stuff and be positive, more united than ever. No one ever went a long way in the World Cup without suffering. You’d have to ask some other teams if they would have liked to give a bad impression but got through.”