Why Spain’s new coach chose Alvarez over Messi and left out 16 World Cup stars

“I don’t drink, so I was perfectly sober,” Spain boss Luis de la Fuente insisted, and everybody laughed. It was a pretty funny thing for an international coach to say; a pretty strange thing too, but it probably needed to be said. After all, being drunk seemed like just about the only justification for what he had done and it didn’t augur well for the future.

Almost the first job that former Spain U21 boss De la Fuente was given after he had taken over from Luis Enrique as the senior team manager on Dec. 8, while the World Cup was still going on without them, was to vote for The Best FIFA men’s player of 2022. And he voted for … Julian Alvarez.

Not eventual winner Lionel Messi, given his World Cup success, or France and PSG star Kylian Mbappe (who came in second.) Not one of Real Madrid‘s top performers: Karim Benzema, Thibaut Courtois, or Vinicius Junior. He voted for Manchester City and Argentina forward Alvarez.

De la Fuente didn’t even make any of that other lot his second or third choices. Instead he went for Alvarez, Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric. What everyone wanted to know was; why? And if that was who he chose as the best — no offence, and Alvarez is a world champion who scored four goals in Qatar — could he be trusted with choosing the best players when it came to selecting a Spain squad?

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The answer to both questions came at the same time. On the day that De la Fuente named his first Spain squad, a news conference was held at Las Rozas, the HQ of the Spanish football federation (RFEF), 25km northwest of Madrid. The media came to ask him about the men who would represent Spain; they also came to ask him what on earth he was thinking when he declared Alvarez the finest footballer on the planet. In fact, that got almost more attention than the rest of it — which might in itself be significant, a reflection of reality and the times we live in. (And, yes, it’s happening here too.)

The change of coach had happened quicker than anyone expected. It also didn’t quite happen the way it was supposed to. Even outgoing coach Luis Enrique hadn’t expected it. So popular after the Seleccion‘s first game at the World Cup, his departure ended up feeling inevitable by their fourth and final match, as they crashed out on penalties in the round of 16 against Morocco.

In truth, it had always seemed likely. Just not like that. Luis Enrique was inclined to see Qatar — or the summer’s UEFA Nations League finals — as the end of a cycle, or at least a guide to where he would go next. He had resisted calls to extend his contract prior to the tournament, not seeing the point, and his mid- to long-term plan was to return to club football, probably in England. At the very least, he was going to wait until after the World Cup before he took a decision. Then he would choose what came next.

Luis Enrique had his defenders and his critics too, and both were radical at times. But the RFEF had been determined to get him to stay, describing him as the best manager out there; it had become frustrated at his refusal to commit beyond Qatar. At that point, there was optimism; when Spain scored seven in their opening game against Costa Rica, all the more so. Even those who didn’t like him — and they were many — had come to the point where they had to admit that he was a good coach.

Had, though, is the word. Some were waiting for the chance to say something very different. Ultimately, results told, you might think. But there was something deeper too, something a little more personal. That failure to get an agreement sooner left a certain tension which also told. Spain flew home with no decision made, but it didn’t take long and it didn’t come from where it was due to come from.

“I thought I would at least have to make a decision,” Luis Enrique admitted. Instead, the RFEF made it for him: the offer to renew was no longer there and they acted fast. He was replaced by De la Fuente within six days of Spain’s elimination. It was both surprising and not surprising at all: although Marcelino Garcia Toral had been the obvious candidate, the signs had been there.

There were plenty of people who had doubts about whether De la Fuente was the best man for the job, but he wasn’t one of them. The 61-year-old has never coached a top-flight club, not even for one game. The highest he reached was second-division Alaves in 2011 and he lasted less than three months. But he had worked with the RFEF, an internal appointment. A former full-back, he had been Spain’s U19 and then U21 coach, and had led the U23s at the Olympics — posts he had occupied since 2013. Meaning, in his words, that he had been on top of Spain’s best players for “the last 10 generations.”

“No one knows the present and future of Spanish football better than me,” he said.

Better, they hoped, than he knew the rest of the world’s players if he reckoned Alvarez was “The Best” of them.

And so it began. Well, sort of. De la Fuente had actually been the Spain manager once before. When, just before the delayed Euro 2020, Spain’s senior squad had to go into isolation because of COVID-19 and the U21s played the final warm-up game for them. Officially a full international against Lithuania on June 8, 2021 in Leganes, De la Fuente was the coach and Spain won 4-0.

Being given the top job for good was different and, on the face of it, the change was dramatic. Yet unpack it, and it does not seem quite such a leap. It is just what it is. A good example is the first and by far the most controversial thing De la Fuente did: call 36-year-old defender Sergio Ramos and tell him that he would not be returning to the squad.

Ramos read that as ever rather than just for this round of fixtures and wrote a long public letter hinting darkly that there might have been politics at play — the RFEF president Luis Rubiales does not have the best relationship with his former captain — and announcing his retirement from international football. To which De la Fuente replied: “I have the good habit of not airing private conversations in public”… The person who bade farewell is Sergio.”

It was a huge issue and yet, despite everything that Ramos has been, despite his form right now, and even Spain’s shortage at centre-back, it didn’t feel that big in purely sporting terms. Instead, this seemed to be more about the status of the man it affected than the football itself.

When the first squad was announced for the Euro 2024 qualifying games in Group A against Norway on March 25 and Scotland on March 28, 16 players who went to the 2022 World Cup were not in it. Which is a dramatic swing in just three months. It is also eloquent in itself, saying something of Spain’s moment, its reality, of Luis Enrique as well as De la Fuente: not least because actually you look at the list and it’s hard to find really significant fault with it. It is just what it is.

The 16 who didn’t make it were: Unai Simon, Cesar Azpilicueta, Eric Garcia, Pau Torres, Jordi Alba, Hugo Guillamon, Sergio Busquets, Carlos Soler, Marcos Llorente, Koke, Ferran Torres, Yeremy Pino, Marco Asensio, Pablo Sarabia and Ansu Fati. Plus Pedri, who is injured.

Ferran Torres’ agency tweeted a bitter response suggesting that people had “got what they wanted,” but he’s not a regular at Barcelona. Busquets has retired from international football. And Simon is injured. How many of those are really glaring absentees? None.

In fact, there could have been more left out: it is striking to see that many changes and for none of them to be the second- and third-choice goalkeepers, in this case Robert Sanchez and David Raya. The one really big absence from the new squad might just be a goalkeeper too: Kepa Arrizabalaga was brought back, while David de Gea continues to be overlooked. And if you look at the list and ask if there are any really glaring inclusions, the answer may still be: none.

There have been call-ups for Joselu and, via injury to Gerard Moreno and Borja Iglesias. Iago Aspas, the best Spanish forward for a decade now, but a man Luis Enrique clearly wasn’t keen on, is back. Three strikers, all from Galicia. Real Madrid defender Nacho, the focal point of a campaign from the capital, in part because there was no one else, has rightly been included. Osasuna‘s David Garcia has been called up. Real Sociedad‘s outstanding Martin Zubimendi, a successor for Busquets, is there. And if Sevilla winger Bryan Gil‘s inclusion surprises, there’s a link there.

Of the latest squad, Gil, Zubimendi, Dani Ceballos, Mikel Merino, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal, (plus Pedri) all went to the Olympics with De la Fuente. This weekend we will find out how good they can be. But this is his team, his choice. Like Alvarez was for “The Best” awards.

“I just fancied choosing him,” De la Fuente said. “No more.”


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