When Luis Enrique announces his Spain squad for the World Cup on Friday, the football world will be braced for it. This teflon-tough, single-minded man loves to defy people’s expectations and lives to thwart his many enemies. We’re talking about someone who draws strength from criticism and controversy like cartoon character Popeye grew muscles after chugging a can of spinach.
So when Spain’s coach reads out the 26 chosen names, everyone will be on the edge of their seats as to whether the brilliant but injury-plagued Ansu Fati, dropped from the last squad, will travel to Qatar, whether the Spain coach and 36-year-old defender Sergio Ramos have reconciled, and whether he’ll infuriate Real Sociedad by risking taking Mikel Oyarzabal despite the forward not having played since March?
But there will be another frisson altogether, one that should intrigue you if you have an interest in the futures of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Manchester City, Liverpool or any of Europe’s forward-thinking elite clubs. Because this could easily be the last Spain squad that “Lucho” reads out.
Given how superbly he’s done while in charge of La Roja — semifinalists at Euro 2020, finalists in the 2021 Nations League, once more in the final four of the 2023 Nations League semifinal next June — and with relatively limited resources, there will be many fans and observers around Spain hoping this isn’t the beginning of an extended adios. But the fact remains that this talented, driven and aggressive 52-year-old is out of contract with the Spanish FA at of the end of the World Cup.
All attempts to renew his deal have, so far, been rebuffed. Already, the drums of Spanish football are beating out the message that Atleti are very tempted to try and cope with the declining returns of the Diego Simeone regime by asking Luis Enrique whether he fancies a return to club football when he’s finished his work in Qatar.
It all came to a head a couple of days ago, when former Real Madrid, Valencia and national team goalkeeper Santiago Canizares said on radio: “Perhaps the best thing for ‘Cholo’ [Simeone] and Atletico is for their paths to separate — so as not to stagnate. They’ve not played good football for a couple of seasons. One name comes to mind, with the character to handle Atleti, and that’s Luis Enrique.”
Also, I know one LaLiga-winning, European Cup finalist with a big Barca past who believes that if Luis Enrique seems on the verge of returning to club football, then Barcelona president Joan Laporta would have a serious dilemma as to whether to watch such an iconic Camp Nou player and coach reinforce one of his enemies, or whether he should strike first by re-hiring him instead.
The counterpoint right now is that Spain’s coach enjoys a very attractive lifestyle: quality time with the family in his Mediterranean village, the ability to pursue his almost-obsessive drive to stay fit, slim, healthy and competitive, balanced with bursts of intense football activity that allow him to throw all his energy at a project without the daily, weekly, monthly wear-and-tear which all top club coaches suffer.
However his Spain squad — heavily dependent on the overplayed and under-pressure Barcelona midfield of Gavi, Sergio Busquets and Pedri — perform against Costa Rica, Germany and Japan in group play in Qatar, the fact is that there’s a very attractive “safety net” opportunity to win a trophy as soon as June against either Croatia, Italy or hosts Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League next year.
It’s easy to imagine Luis Enrique renewing his contract either until then or longer, but naming clubs for whom he’d be permitted to leave without compensation if they offered him the chance to take over as coach. What might this mean? Simply put, any club interested in his services, either immediately or for the 2023-24 season, needs to be jostling for position right now.
The last words on this subject, from Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales, were far from encouraging. It felt as if he were preparing to impose his will — or his ego — on the situation just like he did with Julen Lopetegui days before Spain kicked off in Russia during the 2018 World Cup.
Rubiales told a radio show that: “[Luis Enrique] could stay on, or not stay on. And that could be because of his decision or our [the FA] decision. That’s a part of football and he’d understand if it were our decision, just as we’d understand if it were his decision.”
Now, I’m neither an agent nor an employment lawyer, but Rubiales’ words seem far from a “we want him to stay, it’s imperative he knows how important he is to us… we’ll find a way to persuade him to stay…”
It might well be that Pep Guardiola is preparing to buckle in for an explosive, extended ride at Manchester City now that he realises that he’s about to enjoy a second “Messi-esque” experience thanks to Erling Haaland.
Although Lionel Messi and Haaland have no physical resemblances and totally different playing styles, what ties them is their supernatural ability to take games away from rivals. Why wouldn’t you want to surf a couple of super-successful seasons on that wave? However, if Guardiola fancies fulfilling one of his dreams, coaching Brazil (or even England) to a World Cup win in 2026, there’s no better candidate to take his baseline work and extend it than Luis Enrique.
Attitudes, mentality, football philosophy, plus an unerring willingness to promote and trust talent irrespective of age: there are so many things that link Guardiola and Luis Enrique, the former Barca teammates.
Who knows who’s going to buy Liverpool, how quickly, or how Jurgen Klopp feels about the potential changing of the guard? But when Klopp finally chooses to take his much-discussed sabbatical and travel the world with his wife, Ulla, Luis Enrique would again be an attractive candidate there as well.
Coaching Spain has been an important part of recuperating from the most traumatic family grief because even after he and his family had mourned the loss of his daughter, Xana, in 2019, the drive to get back to re-apply his talent and volcanic energy became impossible to ignore. It’s a stone-cold fact: he’s an extremely good coach, terrifically clever at his profession, forward-thinking and someone who relentlessly strives to find tiny margins of improvement in order to play an exciting brand of football.
In the past he’s told me: “For my coaching the most important idea is to ‘attack.’ When my staff and I pick any team, we first look at what our players can offer in attack. The concept is ‘pressure.’ My teams attack in a very defined way, well-placed so that when we lose the ball, we can pressure the opponent and win it back.
“The third crucial idea is ‘ambition.’ By that I mean my team playing with the same attitude whoever they are facing, wherever it is, whatever the scoreline. We attack and defend the same in every game. So now I have an attacking philosophy that takes risks, that asks players to take the game to opponents and to be decisive in a match.”
If he’s reading this, he’ll be tutting in exasperation. None of this is a subject he wants getting in the way of Spain punching (likely above) their weight in Qatar over the next month, which brings us back to his squad announcement.
It’s a year since some in the Madrid press outright mocked his inclusion of 17-year-old Gavi in the Nations League squad to face European champions, Italy. I heard some journalists talking, after the manager’s news conference, and they literally believed the Spain coach was talking about picking a kid with very few Barcelona first-team appearances out of sheer contrariness and to provoke the ‘anti-Lucho’ media.
They were wrong, and wildly so. Now, Gavi has 12 national team caps and is a central part of Spain’s World Cup campaign. Can there possibly be any thing like an equivalent this time around?
Then there’s Ramos. There was a time when the former Madrid captain got a bit obsessed with stats, racking up more than his 180 caps and his number of undefeated internationals. Luis Enrique had thought the world of Ramos as a defender, as a captain, as a professional footballer. Guys like those two don’t do “love-ins,” but this was the next best thing.
Ramos told Luis Enrique ahead of a World Cup qualifying match against Kosovo in March 2021 that he was fine and fit to come on as a sub. He played the last four minutes of the 3-1 win, went back to his club injured, missed several weeks for Madrid and Luis Enrique felt as if he’d had the wool pulled over his eyes; the defender hasn’t featured for Spain since.
Now he’s fit and playing well for PSG, while La Roja have a superfluity of left-footed centre-backs, but not the right-footed partner they need. Before PSG faced Juventus recently in a Champions League match, Ramos admitted “everyone knows how much playing for my country means to me: I feel fit and fine, but it’s up to the manager.”
Does Luis Enrique pardon Ramos, recall him and even re-install him as captain? It’s a massive call, and one that needs to be right: there’s no grey area with two men of such coruscating characters.
Keep your eyes on this story. At Euro 2020, Spain twice scored five, conceded the own-goal of the tournament, won a dramatic penalty shootout and lost one. At the last Nations League they beat the European champions and rattled the cage of the world champions. Luis Enrique has never been, and will never be, free of controversy, intensity or entertainment. His players revere him and are ultra committed meaning that if this tournament is his last with Spain then, win, lose or draw, it’ll be fiery.