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Spain will not be the same without the character of Luis Enrique

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DOHA, Qatar — Luis Enrique doesn’t like cheese. He likes eggs. He really, really likes eggs. In fact, he eats five or six a day, every day. And if you think that’s weird, he thinks it’s a lot worse for you to eat all those Petit Suisse. Don’t put onions in his tortilla, he says; and in Spain, where with or without onions, it’s a matter of status, it’s all a… well… an affirmation. His favorite player is David Villa. Or Ferran Torres, if only because his daughter is dating him – and yes, it was Luis Enrique who revealed that – but he shouldn’t get any ideas. If Torres is crazy enough to celebrate a goal with a thumbs-up [to signal the arrival of a baby]he is immediately off the team, never to return.

After all, why would Luis Enrique want to be a grandfather when he’s already the internet’s beloved father? Well he has been. Broadcasting on Twitch every night at 8 p.m., sitting there in his big gaming chair, 52 out of 15, he was the coolest cat in the World Cup. Looking back, the one thing he never told us was what he thinks of cats, even though they are all over Qatar. Although, in fact, we can probably guess that he is on the other side of that other big divide: the right side. Because when it was all over, he said he just wanted to go home with his dogs.

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Alas, it was over too soon.

He got out on his bike – it’s a 65 kilometer route from Qatar University – and posted shirtless photos of himself. Which, if you had a body like that at his age – or any age – you could too. He flew out to practice on his scooter every morning. He spent his penultimate night busting clichés everywhere, like a media myth killer. Speaking of myths, he talked about milkmaids and Pelayo, the Asturian warrior who, according to legend, began the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, starting from Covadonga, in 711. Eventually Spain was conquered by Morocco.

Luis Enrique is an asshole. He says so himself. He was also a star. And now he is unemployed.

Not even two days after Spain’s elimination from the World Cup, the Spanish football federation (RFEF) confirmed that their coach, whose contract had expired, would not continue in this role. The decision to get there had been his own: he had refused an extension a year ago when he was considered brilliant, the RFEF was desperate for him to continue and even those outside who were waiting for him , ready to retrieve it, had to put away their knives a bit. The decision not to let him get past that point was theirs.

So after four years – interrupted by personal tragedy, the death of his nine-year-old daughter following a five-month battle with bone cancer – Luis Enrique is no longer Spain manager. Still, at least he can return for the Asturias derby now, scheduled the day before the World Cup final. Perhaps they should have chartered a quick flight for Real Oviedo against Sporting Gijon. In the end, they had to charter a flight home, but it was a one-way trip. “I’m very proud of my team,” the coach said as he left. He did not return to the Catalan coast where he lives; instead, he stayed in Madrid, where he was told it was over.

His mandate had ended in failure, which was inevitable. It could have been different, of course: with 10 seconds to go, Pablo Sarabia hit the post. It would have helped them. It had happened again, insisted Marcos Llorente: without the penalty shootout, Spain would have been in the Euro final – and who knows what would have happened then – and still in this World Cup. And yet it was over. Luis Enrique himself had said the shootout wasn’t just a lottery, although the line was good. Football is funny: the team that started the tournament by scoring seven couldn’t get one, not even from a penalty.

And it was kind of a distillation of Spain under Luis Enrique: kind of always balanced somewhere between being really brilliant, the best thing ever, and really being… well, no. In the end, it was not a good World Cup: Spain played a thousand passes, rarely sending a kick. Some of those familiar flaws reappeared, which was weird because he was supposed to be different; not only tiki takabut something a little more like him: angry, incisive, fearless.

Supposed to be different? He absolutely is, even though on the pitch he has crumbled. There was a moment in the media center here where a British journalist sat down and said, “Mate, why is Luis Enrique so cool?” The answer was inevitable: tell that to some Spaniards. Many of them had it for Luis Enrique. They seemed to take umbrage at everything and took him extremely seriously, seemingly oblivious to everything he was doing with them. In the end, some of them seemed almost happy (?!) that Spain had lost, that he was gone. In a country that likes to debate and divide, this too had become one, of course.

Now, both could be right, right? For a while, even those who said they didn’t like him had to admit he was good at it. But then it happened. And it was, in the end, a bad World Cup. You could go back to the Euros and maybe say something similar, although much less clear, despite reaching the semi-finals: they had just come out of the group, then won a game in extra time and another on penalties. But then they had played like this against Italy, even though they lost. Now they were playing like this.

There are mistakes to admit, analyzes to make. There is also something simpler, perhaps deeper: Spain have won just three World Cup matches since they were crowned champions in 2010, none of them in the round of 16. Is it just their reality, their level?

And what does it say about Luis Enrique that for a while we wondered if they could really win the World Cup? That he built a team – and the great obsession was precisely that it was a team, not just a selection of players – which reached the semi-finals of the Euros, the final of a Nations League and the four finals of another. That they put six against Germany and Croatia, seven against Costa Rica. Only with a generation of players who were not this generation of players, he did.

Speaking of generations, no matter what, the legacy is there even when, in some cases, their clubs were less secure. Alex Baldé is 19 years old; Ansu Fati is 20 years old; Nico Williams is 20 years old; Yeremy Pino is 18 years old; Pedri turned 20 in Doha; Gavi is 18 years old. Look at the Spanish squad and you wonder how many are at the top level. You could imagine Gavi and Pedri, maybe? It was Luis Enrique who placed Pedri for the Euro at 18. It was Luis Enrique who played Gavi against Italy, aged 17, with just 374 senior minutes to his name, and got a performance like that. It was Luis Enrique who kept playing him until the rest of the world said, “Whoa, look at that kid.”

“It’s the kids playing who are brave, not me,” said Luis Enrique. But he played them, many times.

When he put Gavi in, they thought he was crazy. In fact, he was right.

And maybe also a little crazy. You could see this every night on his feed, a platform that took the pressure off his players, which he had never really set foot on – although a radio station manipulated recordings to try to make it clear that he had done it. Instead, he showed things no coach has done, become a star in this competition, maybe the only coach who is. Just as the media complained that this was the wrong place, so did the press conferences, each of which was a lesson, offering depth, analysis and character.

There were many opportunities to listen to him. And if you did, there was method in there, okay. Not just eggs and yogurt and having sex, but not having orgies. And yes, he said that too, chuckling as he did. He was convincing, even if you disagreed. Its players bought into it: sometimes, with all the commitment of an idea, it felt a bit like a cult. Although – and there is no escaping this – in the end, his team was not, not as it should have been.

Luis Enrique led, and he did it his way. From the platform to the screen to the walkie-talkies and all the way out. It was wild for a while, and it won’t be the same, that’s for sure.



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