EM 2021: Spain versus Croatia – an ode to football

WITHtwo hours after the final whistle, the team buses drove through the neighborhood by Copenhagen Park, and some people jumped up from their restaurant tables to applaud once more. Winners as well as vanquished. Spaniards as well as Croatians. A pleasant mood settled over the summer night, the people were only partially drunk, but all were inspired. They had seen a lovely soccer game.

The bare numbers: 5: 3. Half time 1: 1, score 3: 3 after 90 minutes. The script: a grotesque goalkeeper mistake, two chases to catch up, four psychological turnarounds. At first the Spaniards were on the trigger, then the Croats, then the Spaniards again, then the Croats again, and finally the Spaniards again. Only when it took the grand old master Luka Modric off the field in the 114th minute, Croatia hoisted the white flag. All the parking people applauded the 35 year old.

What did this stadium not experience at this tournament? Four games, four dramas. Christian Eriksen’s collapse in the Danes’ first game against Finland. A common catharsis in the second against Belgium. A football explosion in the third against Russia. And now this: a game that could end one way or the other; that lifted nobodies onto the world stage, invented failures and converted them into heroes, and which in the end united an entire stadium in applause. A game by those who make this sport – despite everything, the money, the corruption – so indestructible.

Crazy own goal as a starting point

Last but not least, this multinational European Championship shows that there is such a thing as a genius loci in football. Stadiums like Parking, 110 years old, dense and cramped, produce such games. The actors themselves must have felt enormous stimulation at kick-off, because the Spaniards had previously played in a sparsely occupied athletics arena in front of an ultra-critical home crowd and the Croatians in Corona-sealed Great Britain without their own fans. Now there were many there, there were the typical noises when the football is not under the veil of silence (or the same shalala). The alternation of quiet and noise. The Ah and the Ohs. The ecstasy and the encouragement in need. This reunion with the emotions probably contributed to the fact that some players outdid themselves and acted as if in a trance.

Unai Simon throws the ball out of his own goal in frustration


There was Unai Simón, the Spanish goalkeeper, not a star in his field, but a 24-year-old from Athletic Bilbao who hadn’t even played the European Cup before this European Championship. When he let a back pass from the midfield of Pedri jump over the foot in the 20th minute after a superior start of the Spaniards, one had to think briefly of Loris Karius. There is bad luck, there is bad luck and there is such a thing that can destroy careers.

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But Simón rehabilitated himself several times. He continued to play courageously with his foot and thus initiated the attack to make it 2-1. He parried brilliantly several times, including a decisive 3: 3. “A lesson for all players and all children who want to play football,” is how his coach Luis Enrique called this personal epic. You still can’t imagine what would have rained down on Simón if he hadn’t made it.

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Slovakia's goalkeeper Martin Dubravka (back) reacts to Spain's fifth goal, an own goal scored by Slovakia's midfielder Juraj Kucka during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group E football match between Slovakia and Spain at La Cartuja Stadium in Seville on June 23, 2021. (Photo by Julio MUNOZ / POOL / AFP)

There was also Pedri, who was only 18 years old, whose face would have been suitable for mummification at the moment when Simón did not hit the ball and he had just scored the longest own goal in football history. But who played even more angelically after the subsequent Spanish shock phase than he usually already does anyway.

Equalization and a 2-1 lead sprang from his talent for contouring the attacks, and during the Croatian race to catch up, the teenager was the only one to find the resting pulse to maintain any semblance of order with soothing hand movements. In vain in this case.

Morata, the antihero

And there was striker Álvaro Morata, the Spanish antihero, who had been booed by his own audience in the past few days, verbally massacred by some media and even threatened on social networks. His socks soon had holes because he got so much on his socks in his furious duels with the Croatian defense. Who had run 15 kilometers at the end of the game, in words: fifteen. And with his 4: 3 in the 100th minute, he not only scored the most important but also the most beautiful of all eight goals, when he took a cross from Dani Olmo with his right and put it under the crossbar with his left.

After the final whistle, he was asked whether he was so touched because of this redeeming goal after the whole story, because his eyes only seemed to stare hypnotically. “No,” said Morata. “I’m dead.”

28.06.2021, Denmark, Copenhagen: Soccer: EM, Croatia - Spain, final round, round of 16 in the Telia Parken Stadium.  Spain's Alvaro Morata celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal.  Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand / Pool AFP / AP / dpa +++ dpa-Bildfunk +++

Spain’s Alvaro Morata celebrates after scoring his team’s fourth goal

Source: dpa

There was, on the Croatian side, the director Modric, who was initially so cut off from the game by the Spaniards that the Croatian fans hardly got their “Luka, Luka” calls, which were heard every time he touched the ball. But who always, if he could somehow, and be it between three opponents, found a pass that nobody else saw. And his instinct from almost 20 years of top-class football said in the 85th minute that something was still going on, which is why he suddenly appeared almost at the goal line next to Simón and after several feint the 2: 3 played.

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Croatia left the forces

Finally, there was a 28-year-old driver named Mislav Orsic, who converted to 2: 3 after being substituted on, hit a perfect cross to 3: 3 in stoppage time and then put down a few irresistible solos in the Croatian hurray phase. In normal life, after seven positions in China and Korea, among others, he acts as a left winger at Dinamo Zagreb. For a few crazy minutes he was Pele.

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“Spain deserved to win,” said Orsic nonetheless. “We ran out of strength to come back again,” Modric added. Like him, coach Zlatko Dalic called Simón’s parade against Andrei Kramaric at 3: 3 as the decisive scene, but everyone had seen it anyway. You almost felt you could feel the air that escaped the Croatians afterwards.

The runner-up world champion, who survived two penalty shootouts and one extra time in 2018, had once again outdone himself, especially after Ivan Perisic’s positive corona test. But even this gifted tournament team was unable to counter the Spanish mix of skill and fury with two more goals.

The legs carried as far as one believed in his luck. The extreme mood swings of the game showed an example of an insight that the Dutch or French have to deal with at home: it is even more important than football to be emotionally up-to-date at this European Championship. Which goes perfectly with a passionate, characterful guy like Luis Enrique.

Enrique makes the right decisions

Or Louis Henrique, as the stadium announcer consistently pronounced it. Even as a player a fighter, the former master coach of FC Barcelona “has already experienced some very intense games”, as he explained: “But few like this one.” stared, may he have cursed it and thought of his changes a few minutes earlier, which already had something of a hasty gentle approach. Many, very many would have called his head in a defeat, because it has always polarized and even more since he was the first Spanish coach to nominate a tournament squad without Real Madrid players.

Pure ecstasy: The team celebrates Mikel Oyarzabal (r.) After the Spaniard's fifth goal in the round of 16 against Croatia.  Luis Enrique's team almost lost a 3-1 lead

Pure ecstasy: The team celebrates Mikel Oyarzabal (r.) After the Spaniard’s fifth goal in the round of 16 against Croatia

Source: dpa

To put Unai Simón in the goal instead of the experienced David de Gea was his decision. Morata and, after the reviews, even more so to set up “Morata and ten others”, his insistence. The renunciation of the ailing captain Sergio Ramos, his courage. The surprising appointment of Pablo Sarabia, on Monday the shooter of the 1: 1 in the meantime, his inspiration. The formation against Croatia without Gerard Moreno – the best Spanish goalscorer of the past league season – and Marcos Llorente – the best national preparer -, his match plan, called for by the media and fans in an endless loop. And this Spanish quarter-finals, the first since the end of the golden title cycle between 2008 and 2012, he is, even his enemies had to admit it: his quarter-finals.

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In that now comes Switzerland, already on Friday in Saint Petersburg. After their no less heroic 120 minutes, the Confederates will not have recovered any better, and they will also miss the suspended captain Granit Xhaka. But who knows better than the Spaniards, who panicked the tournament after captain Sergio Busquets’ positive Covid test, that adversity does not have to mean the end by a long way.

An ode to football

“The spirit of these teams is clear to see,” said Luis Enrique. Even the alienated Real fans can now find pleasant details in him, the unlikely leading actor Sarabia was trained in her youth. And you can hardly have anything against this team anyway. Not after this game. Not after ten goals in the last two matches.

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When the whistle ended in Copenhagen, the Spanish substitutes ran arm in arm onto the pitch, like a group of conspiratorial children that this predominantly young team is somewhere. Luis Enrique took a deep breath. Unai Simón threw his orange jersey into the Spanish-Danish fan colony, which had cheered him up after his lapse. But the Croatians also went on a lap of honor. Modric was the last of them all to leave the grass at the right corner flag, where the cabin wing begins in this special stadium. A last bunch of fans called his name.

Only now was it over, the ode to football.

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