“You seem a bit worried about the pressure,” Luis Enrique said. Well, yeah. Worried is an understatement. Terrified, might do it. At Spain‘s Las Rozas HQ on Tuesday morning, as the Spanish media waited at the gates in the sunshine, one subject dominated discussion. Just how concerned they were, just how present the threat had become. This s— is real. The World Cup is just over a year away and, they feared, they be wouldn’t there. No matter how much you told them “nah, you’ll be fine,” the doubts wouldn’t go away and the pessimism clung to them.
Now, you may be tempted to get out the world’s smallest violin and (quite rightly) ask “who cares about journalists? This isn’t about them.” And you’d be right to. But sometimes they’re a reflection of something broader. Their concerns are others’ concerns as well. For all the cynicism and silliness, sometimes they’re genuine, too.
And no, this isn’t about the journalists, but it is about Spain. And for Spain, there really is a risk of not making it to the World Cup. It would be the first time since 1974.
Spain haven’t missed out on any major tournament in almost 30 years, when they failed to make the 1992 Euros, and back then only eight teams did. In the buildup to those Euros, they didn’t even play their final game, dismissed as an irrelevance for a team that was already out. Since then, they have been at 14 consecutive competitions. They won three of them, of course; then they went three in a row without winning a single knockout game at a finals.
Rodri said earlier in the week that Spain are “not obliged” to be at the World Cup, which prompted lots of people to respond: “Yes, you are.” When asked about his teammate’s remarks, Dani Carvajal sidestepped the matter slightly by insisting: “Spain are obliged to win every game.” That’s not true, either, but not being at the World Cup would be a huge failure, something not seen in nearly half a century. By the time they landed in Greece ahead of Thursday’s game, pretty much every question at the prematch news conference was about the pressure. Hence Luis Enrique’s response.
“Blessed pressure!” he cheered. “I am pressure. I’ve been putting up with it since I made my debt at Sporting at 19. I like it this way; I like a bit of action. What’s really bad is to play in a team with no pressure. We wouldn’t be Spain if there was none. We play better under pressure, we have shown that.”
And yet it wasn’t just the questions; it was him, too. When he had named his squad a week ago, the Spain coach had admitted that the pressure was on. He had talked about the Nations League, in which Spain reached the final against France last month, as a kind of “free hit” — an obligation-less opportunity for a little glory. This was different. Now, seeing their concerns about pressure, how worried they had become and how little they believed, he admitted: “Maybe I was a bit too honest last week.”
Maybe, but in any case, they’re almost there.
On Thursday, to the seleccion‘s relief, it was Sweden doing what Spain have done throughout qualification: slumping to a surprising defeat in Georgia and suddenly throwing doubt on their own path to the World Cup. Spain had a roughly 33% chance of topping Group B, but Sweden’s 2-0 loss, followed hours later by Spain’s nervy 1-0 win in Athens, changed the equation considerably. A draw in Seville on Sunday against the Swedes (stream LIVE on ESPN+, 2:30 p.m. ET) puts Spain through.
Greece hadn’t been beaten at home in over two years, but Pablo Sarabia‘s first-half penalty proved enough to see Spain to victory. Despite a ton of injuries — Spain arrived in Athens without Ansu Fati, Pedri, Ferran Torres, Mikel Oyarzabal, Marcos Llorente or Gerard Moreno, while Eric García and Yeremi Pino were forced to withdraw — they held on.
Nobody seemed more surprised than Raul de Tomas, who, making his first-ever start for the national team, ended up playing almost an hour. “When they announced the lineup, I was a bit shocked, but then I snapped out of it and started focusing on playing well,” he said. “Álvaro and I were switching positions and we were comfortable, we connected well. All this wouldn’t have occurred if Luis Enrique hadn’t called me. I am grateful to him.”
Given the momentum shift in Thursday’s games, they should get that point they need, yet it’s often hard to know what to think with this Spain team. This is the team that beat Italy in the Nations League semifinal and were better than France in the final… but lost. The team that reached the semifinal of Euro 2020 and were only defeated by Italy on penalties, having played better football than their opponents. Better football, perhaps, than anyone at the tournament. It is the team that put six past Germany in Seville on route to that Nations League final four, too.
But it is also the team can dominate games, but not always penalty areas; the team that seems to have a vulnerability even when playing well. Against Greece, with 75% of possession and total dominance, they needed a questionable penalty to win 1-0; they also needed a Greek goal disallowed for offside.
Spain is the team that only won one game in 90 minutes at the Euros. That couldn’t find a way past Sweden or Poland, and needed penalties against Switzerland. That finds itself in this position because they have already been held by Greece — at home, in Granada — and been deservedly beaten by Sweden. The team that needed a 92nd-minute goal to scrape past Georgia in Tbilisi, and a 90th-minute goal to complete an unconvincing 2-0 win over Kosovo in Pristina.
That defeat to Sweden was the first time Spain had lost a single World Cup qualifying game since 1993.
Ultimately, this is not a position Spain are used to, although there have been moments and poor results — losing 3-2 to Cyprus and a David Healey hat-trick for Northern Ireland come to mind. They had to beat Malta by 11 goals to book a place at Euro 1984. Amazingly, they won 12-1, having only led 3-1 at half-time. To get to Euro 1988, they needed seven goals in their final game to guarantee qualification… only for group leaders Romania to draw and thus rescue them from that obligation. To make it to the 1994 World Cup, they had to hang on against Denmark in the final qualifying game with 10 men.
Heading towards the 2014 World Cup, they had to win in Paris to avoid dropping into the playoffs. A Pedro goal was enough; well, that and a superb display from keeper Víctor Valdes. And twice they did have to qualify via the playoff. In 2004, they drew with Ukraine and Northern Ireland and lost in Zaragoza… to Greece. They had to then play, and beat, Norway, winning 5-1 on aggregate, to reach the Euros via the playoffs. In 2006, they defeated Slovakia by the same scoreline to get to the World Cup.
So yeah, there was pressure. And lots of it. And Luis Enrique knows that; sitting in front of the press, he could see it, feel it. Hear it. Over and over. It was in there in the room with them, not so much an elephant that got ignored, but a herd of them that everyone was talking about. And it’s there because it is in the country too. And in the squad, of course. Another element for Luis Enrique to manage.
“We are in a good situation. In terms of attitude, my players did well and showed ambition,” he told reporters after winning in Greece. “Of course I believe that on Sunday, we will get direct qualification to the World Cup. A draw against Sweden will be enough for us to qualify, but I can assure you we will go out for the win.”
Spain’s captain against Greece, Koke, reinforced that sentiment. “It was crucial for us to win today’s game. Spain has to be at the World Cup. We are all eager to qualify for the World Cup.”
Reaching the World Cup is a process for any team, of course, with no country guaranteed of a spot (except for the hosts). After a fraught week and a tougher than expected route, Spain are almost there.
“I’m happy,” Luis Enrique had said on Wednesday amid the chaos. By Thursday night, he was happier yet. Win on Sunday and there will no way of wiping the smile off his face.