Great expectations don’t faze Spain as they look to make a mark at Euro 2022
“I’m not judging you,” Mapi León says and then she starts laughing, which she does often. “But,” the Spain and Barcelona defender continues, “the pressure comes more from the media. Sometimes, it’s as if you have to win all the time. ‘Oh, they’ll win.’ We will win? No. It seems like if we don’t, it’s a disaster, a drama. It seems easy. There’s the run with our clubs, the improvement with the national team, our [Fifa] ranking, we’re playing well, everything is super-positive but, no, it’s not so easy.”
Time, then, to let a little realism back in. In the days before Spain’s preliminary squad met at their Las Rozas HQ, the coach, Jorge Vilda, described the pressure his players were under as excessive, unreal. “The expectation has become very high, and that’s not good,” he said. “I’ve not experienced this; friends say they’ve never seen demands like these made of a national team that still hasn’t won anything. We’ve not won the Euros or the World Cup, but they have us down as champions or finalists. The pressure on the players isn’t normal.”
Maybe not, but if it is exaggerated it is also understandable, a feeling that Spain’s growth is unstoppable, and there are reasons to be excited. The XI that starts the first game against Finland on 8 June may well include seven players from the Barcelona side that won the treble in 2020-21 and the double last season, reaching a second consecutive Champions League final, their third in four years: the team that won 43 of 45 games in 2021-22, scoring 213 goals and conceding 24 and setting an attendance world record en route. One of them, Alexia Putellas, is the holder of the Ballon d’Or. And four – Putellas, León, Patri Guijarro, Aitana Bonmatí – were named in Uefa’s team of the year last month.
Spain have reached the quarter-finals of the past two Euros, eliminated on penalties in 2017. At the World Cup in 2019 they were beaten by the eventual winners, the US, but only 2-1 via two Megan Rapinoe penalties. Qualification for the next World Cup is secure with two games to spare – goals scored 45, goals conceded 0 – and they qualified for these finals unbeaten having scored 48 and let in only one. They are undefeated in two years and 23 games. 19 wins, four draws: against Brazil and Italy, plus England and Germany, two of the favourites this summer.
Potential opponents, too, which is cause enough for caution but not the only one. “We have to have our feet on the ground because we’re in the same group as Germany, who’ve won the Euros six times in a row [between 1989 and 2013] and there are six or seven teams at the top of their game,” Putellas says. If Spain do not win their group, it is likely England await. Beyond them lie the reigning champions the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and France, whose squad includes five of the Lyon players that defeated Barcelona in this year’s Champions League final in Turin, that impression of invincibility broken, defeat hitting hard.
As the players arrived at Las Rozas, there was also a recognition of the fatigue accumulated, the forward Mariona Caldentey citing the need to “grit our teeth” and make “one last effort”. They did so in a heatwave, León responding to a question about the fitness of her recovering teammate Esther González by laughing and shooting back: “I’ve got enough on my plate trying to breathe out there, without watching what she’s doing.” Another teammate, Jenni Hermoso, didn’t make it at all, a knee ligament injury ruling her out.
The absence of Spain’s all-time top scorer, Hermoso, is “super-sensitive: she has a quality that almost no one has”, according to the goalkeeper Sandra Paños. “A joker, always acting daft, we really miss her,” León says. González, Caldentey, and Clàudia Pina are among the alternatives, but not quite of the same profile. Spain will not only have to replace Hermoso but adapt to her absence, another reason to temper potentially inflated expectations.
The level of support and confidence from fans is “cool”, Paños says, yet she admits that Spain may be “overrated” because of Barcelona’s success. “Barcelona is one thing, the selección another,” she concedes. “We haven’t beaten those big powers that have been winning titles for a long time and go into every tournament as favourites.”
Now, though, maybe they can – and for all the caution that is the aspiration. Spain have never beaten Germany, France or Sweden, Vilda noted, but there is always a first time and they are surely closer than ever before. If he talks about the need to take that “weight” from Spain’s shoulders, to deflate the “bubble”, saying “to do something important we have to be physically and mentally 100%” and requesting time, his players insist the pressure is greater outside than in. That was León’s point: reality does not mean failing to compete; reality means competing better, knowing what you’re up against.
Here, Barcelona’s Champions League final loss might even serve as a lesson, for those building expectations as well as those playing under them. “Budapest [where Barça lost the 2019 Champions League final 4-1 to Lyon] helped and Turin will too,” she says, defeat becoming part of a process that has brought them to this point. Their seventh-placed Fifa ranking is not by chance but the consequence of a steady advance of improvements in the league, clubs, resources, methods. There is a confidence, a sense of purpose.
“We trust in what we do,” Paños says. “We have a hard group and meet a hard group too, but we also have to be aware that we’ve done good things, that we played well at the last World Cup and the last Euros, even if we didn’t get as far as we wanted. We’re improving in many aspects and we have to enjoy it. If we do, we’ll do well.”
There is a clear footballing identity too, the captain, Irene Paredes, noting: “Having lots of players from Barcelona is positive. There isn’t much preparation time for a national team. Football is automatisimos [mechanisms] and we’ve worked on that daily and know each other perfectly. The Barcelona DNA is then improved by the other players who bring their virtues, making this an excellent team.”
“The philosophy of the national team begins with players who are technical, who read the game tactically, and above all are adaptable: we have the tools to resolve [all] kinds of situations,” the Atlético and Spain midfielder Irene Guerrero explains. “And we’re growing in every sense. Five, 10 years ago, we were a national team that struggled physically but we’re closing that deficit. In the last two years, you can see it: you can measure it.”
Caldentey adds: “As well as the physical change, which is evident, there’s a psychological factor that’s very important and an ongoing process. We look at any team now and know we can beat them.” León talks about “patience”, a team no longer anxious to attack with haste: “we know what we have to do.” The forward Sheila García says: “The favourites are England and Germany but the team we’re building will compete with any of them.”
“Before, facing France or Germany was … pfff,” Paredes admits. “Now we look them in the eye.” As Vilda puts it: “A lot has changed since the World Cup. We made life very difficult for the US, left feeling we can take anyone on, and since then there has been lots of good news: improvement, a committed federation, professionalisation. All that adds up to the great level we have now. Let me take the pressure, let the team play. We have the quality to do something big, but give us time. The confidence is high, our demands too. We’re going to the Euros to fight.”
“A lot has changed, but I would highlight the maturity,” says Bonmatí, who opened the scoring in a 7-0 drubbing of Australia last Saturday. “We’re competitive, we know how to manage a game. Maybe we didn’t have that before against big teams. We’ve changed physically. We’re used to playing with pressure – at our club they make the same demands of us – but we know how difficult this Euros is. As a national team, we haven’t done anything big, we can say that. We’ve been at a very high level for two or three years but we know there are teams that have done more than us, won titles. We’re on the path and have the highest ambitions. We know who we are, where we are, and we’re ready to do something good.”