The last time Luis Enrique Martinez Garcia pulled on Spain’s jersey – June 22, 2002 – it all ended in disappointment, and, by that stage, the Asturian was well acquainted to the taste of bitter defeat.
For a generation of players with immense talent, Spain were the perennial underachievers, and perennial quarter-finalists too. In previous major international tournaments, La Roja had been knocked out in the quarter-finals of both the 1994 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship before group stage elimination in the 1998 World Cup in France. And so, it came as little surprise when Spain were bundled out of the 2002 World Cup in the quarter-finals yet again.
Thus, it was perhaps apt that his international career would end like this; in his 11 years representing his national team, he had given his all, shedding his blood for the side too.
For most of the current generation of footballers, Spain’s presence in major competitions was characterised by the image of Enrique’s bloody jersey following a tussle with Italian Mauro Tassotti. Gerard Pique, for instance, reminisced that watching him bleed all over solidified his dream of playing for the national team. For others, it became a lasting image of Spain’s failures; no matter how hard they tried, luck was never on their side.
Football can be a cruel game, but can also be a fair one too. Some 5,861 days following his retirement from the national team, the 48-year-old is back in the national team fold with an opportunity to exorcise past demons and perhaps more importantly, for a shot at glory and redemption.
Even more fittingly, however, are the circumstances surrounding his national team appointment. Touted as favourites, Spain’s demise during 2018 World Cup came as a result of a series of poor decisions. Interim Coach Fernando Hierro’s decision to bench their most influential playmaker Andres Iniesta in their crucial round of 16 clash against Russia and poor use of substitutes spring to mind. Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that Luis Rubiales’ decision to sack Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup, even though it was one based largely on integrity, was undoubtedly detrimental to their campaign.
They were perhaps unlucky as well, carving up a number of opportunities as the former world champions dominated proceedings, only for the fate of their future in the tournament decided by a process no better than rolling a dice.
It’s for this reason that Enrique’s appointment feels right. Unlike his predecessors, the Asturian is largely unorthodox. He’s loud and boisterous, and his demeanour can sometimes come across as arrogant.
Meanwhile, critics of the former midfielder insist on his previous confrontations with several high-profile players, most notably Lionel Messi during his time at Barcelona and Francesco Totti at Roma as well as his poor relationship with the Spanish media as problem with his public persona. But for someone like RFEF president Rubiales, who operates under a similar no-nonsense mantra, Luis Enrique is a man of conviction and uncompromising in his philosophy. His job, after all, is not to kowtow to journalists off the field, but to earn favourable results on it.
But there’s more to it than just that. Enrique is an astute tactician who promises to bring a fresh approach to the team. Whilst the manner with which his time at Barcelona came to an end was far from ideal, many are quick to forget that Enrique was the same man who helped the Blaugrana to a treble in his first season in charge. During his tenure, he moulded the Catalans into an efficient goalscoring machine, utilising the side’s strengths through a more direct approach.
Ultimately, Enrique is a progressive coach who prefers more variation and flexibility in the team’s style of play – his teams in the past have often looked most dangerous with slick link-up play in attacking areas. Meanwhile, his emphasis on innovation and fitness could rejuvenate a side which tactically, and physically, looked stagnant.
Indeed, Enrique has often spoke of his desire to coach the national team, Rubiales, too, claimed there was only one man they had in mind for the job. Disappointment might well be the adjective that has plagued the 48-year-old’s time in Spanish colours in the past, but if Enrique has it his own way, a Spanish side under his tutelage could be a match made in heaven.