OP-ED: Spain starts its path to Russia’s World Cup with the right foot
We can still hear the echo of Euro 2016, but the national teams are already in the run for Russia’s World Cup, proving that in the Old Continent soccer does not rest, being played 13 months in a 12-month year.
Eyeing the 2018 World Cup, all European soccer powerhouses made their respective debuts in the past two days with diverse luck. In fact, their results were exactly opposite to the ones achieved in France only 90 days ago. European champion Portugal lost to Switzerland, 2-0, while second-place France failed to convert many scoring opportunities and draw, 0-0, at Belarus. On the other hand, Germany, Italy, Spain and England all won. The English team had the toughest match, scoring the lonely goal of its game against Slovakia five minutes into aggregated time.
Facing a very weak opponent, Liechtenstein, Spain won by an impressive, 8-0. Leaving the score aside, the game displayed by La Roja was followed very closely as Julen Lopetegui was taking over as the team’s head coach in place of soccer legend Vicente Del Bosque. Despite leading Spain to its first ever World Cup (2010) title and a European championship (2012), Del Bosque did not have much luck in his last two tournaments. Spain was eliminated in the group round in Brazil 2014 after allowing seven goals in its first two contests and painfully lost to Italy in France 2016 in a game to forget. After these failures and several problems in the locker room, which included benching goalkeeper Iker Casillas in the Eurocup, Del Bosque traumatically left the Spanish National Team.
Lopetegui could not have a better debut. He quickly ran away from the Casillas’ issue, avoiding calling him to the squad and relying on Manchester United’s David De Gea as starting goalkeeper. In the midfield, he incorporated Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara to run the show, flanked by Atlético de Madrid’s Koke. There were also surprises up front. Winger Vitolo from Sevilla received and took advantage of the opportunity given by Lopetegui and Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa came back to the team and scored twice.
But who is Lopetegui?
He was born 50 years ago in a small town, Asteasu, from the Vasc Region. Very few will remember him from his playing days. He was a star goalkeeper with Logroñés, but then could not shine when Barcelona signed him and never made it to the starting squad. As a coach, he headed many teams in Spain’s developing system, claiming Europe’s championships for the country in the Under-19 (2012) and Under-21 (2013) categories. In those years he had the opportunity to manage rising stars like De Gea, Thiago and Morata. After a short tenure at Oporto, Spanish Soccer Federation president Ángel María Villar convinced him to replace Del Bosque as head coach of the prime team.
With Italy in its qualifying group, Spain’s path to Russia will not be easy. Anyhow, Lopetegui has started it with the right foot, gaining in the way the credibility of the fans and of the demanding Spanish media.