DOHA, Qatar -- Luis Enrique doesn't like cheese. He does like eggs. He really, really likes eggs. In fact, he eats five or six a day, every day. And if you think that's weird, he thinks it's much worse that you eat all those Petit Suisse. Don't put onions in his tortilla, he says; and in Spain, where with or without onions are a question of state, it's quite a ... well ... statement. His favourite player is David Villa. Or Ferran Torres, if only because his daughter's going out with him -- and yes, it was Luis Enrique who revealed that -- but he shouldn't go getting any ideas. If Torres is foolish enough to celebrate a goal with a thumb in his mouth [to signal the arrival of a baby], he's out of the team immediately, never to return.
After all, why would Luis Enrique want to be a granddad when he's already the daddy? Well, he was. Streaming on Twitch every night at 8 p.m., sitting there in his big gamer's chair, 52 going on 15, he was the coolest cat at the World Cup. Come to think of it, just about the only thing he never told us was what he thought of cats, even though they're everywhere in Qatar. Although, actually, we can probably guess that he's on the other side of that other great divide: the right side. Because when it was all over, he said he just wanted to get home to his dogs.
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Alas, it was over too soon.
He went out on his bike -- there's a 65-kilometre-round route from Qatar University -- and posted pictures of himself shirtless. Which, if you had a body like that at his age -- or any age -- you might, too. He flew down to training on his scooter each morning. He spent his penultimate night smashing the clichés all over the place, like some media myth slayer. Speaking of myths, he has talked about milkmaids and Pelayo, the Asturian warrior who, legend has it, started the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, beginning at Covadonga, in 711. In the end, Spain were conquered by Morocco.
Luis Enrique is a d---head. He says so himself. He was also a star. And now he is out of a job.
Not even two days after Spain's elimination from the World Cup, the Spanish football federation (RFEF) confirmed it: their coach, whose contract was up, would not be continuing in the role. The decision to reach this point had been his: he had turned down an extension a year ago when they thought he was brilliant, when the RFEF were desperate for him to continue and when even those outside who were waiting for him, ready to get him, had to put their knives away for a bit. The decision not to let him get past this point was theirs.
And so after four years -- interrupted by personal tragedy, the death of his nine-year-old daughter following a five-month battle with bone cancer -- Luis Enrique is no longer the Spain manager. Still, at least he can get back for the Asturias derby now, scheduled for the day before the World Cup final. They might have needed to charter a quick flight back for Real Oviedo vs. Sporting Gijon. As it turned out, they did have to charter a flight home, but it was one way. "I'm very proud of my team," the coach said on the way out. He didn't head back to the Catalan coast where he lives; instead, he stayed in Madrid, where he was told it was over.
His tenure had finished in failure, which was inescapable. It could have been different, sure: with 10 seconds to go, Pablo Sarabia hit the post. That would have taken them through. It had happened again, Marcos Llorente insisted: if it wasn't for penalties, Spain would have been in the final of the Euros -- and who knows what would have happened then -- and still in this World Cup. And yet it was over. Luis Enrique himself had said the shootout is not just a lottery, though the line is fine. Football is funny: the team that started the tournament scoring seven couldn't get one, not even from the penalty spot.
And that was kind of a distillation of Spain under Luis Enrique: somehow always balanced somewhere between being really brilliant, the best thing ever and being really ... well, not. Ultimately, this was not a good World Cup: Spain played out a thousand passes, only rarely landing a blow. Some of those familiar flaws reappeared, which was weird because he was supposed to be different; not just tiki-taka, but something a little more like he is: edgy, incisive, lacking fear.
Supposed to be different? He absolutely is, even if out on the pitch it fell apart. There was a moment in the media centre here when a British journalist sat down and said, "Mate, why is Luis Enrique so cool?" The response was inevitable: Go tell some of the Spanish that. Many of them had it in for Luis Enrique. They seemed to take umbrage at everything and take him tremendously seriously, seemingly unaware of how much he was messing with them. By the end, some of them seemed almost happy (?!) that Spain had lost, that he was gone. In a country that loves debate and divide, that too had become one, of course.
Now both could be right, couldn't they? For a while, even those who said they didn't like him had to admit he was good at this. But then this happened. And this was, in the final analysis, a bad World Cup. You could go back to the Euros and perhaps say something similar, if far less clear cut, despite reaching the semifinal: they had only just gotten out the group, then won one game in extra-time and another on penalties. But then they had played like that against Italy, even if they lost. Now they played like this.
There are mistakes to admit, analyses to be had. There is also something more simple, more profound, perhaps: Spain have won just three World Cup games since being crowned champions in 2010, none of them in the knockout rounds. Is this just their reality, their level?
And what does that say about Luis Enrique that for a while we wondered if they really could win the World Cup? That he built a team -- and the big obsession was precisely that it was a team, not just a selection of players -- that reached the Euros semifinal, the final of the one Nations League, and the final four of another. That they put six past Germany and Croatia, seven against Costa Rica. That with a generation of players who weren't that generation of players, he did this.
Speaking of generations, whatever else we say, the legacy is there even when, in some cases, their clubs were less sure. Alex Balde is 19; Ansu Fati is 20; Nico Williams is 20; Yeremy Pino is 18; Pedri turned 20 in Doha; Gavi is 18. Look at Spain's squad and you wonder how many are at the very, very highest level. You might imagine Gavi and Pedri, perhaps? It was Luis Enrique who put Pedri in for the Euros at 18. It was Luis Enrique who played Gavi against Italy, aged 17, with only 374 senior minutes to his name, and got a performance like that. It was Luis Enrique who kept playing him until the rest of the world said, 'Whoa, look at this kid."
"It's the kids who play who are brave, not me," Luis Enrique said. But he played them, repeatedly.
When he put Gavi in, they thought he was mad. Actually, he was right.
And maybe also a bit mad. You could see that nightly on his stream, a platform that reduced the pressure on his players, upon which somehow he never truly put his foot in it -- although one radio station manipulated recordings to try to make out that he had. Instead, he showed things no coach has, became a star of this competition, maybe the only coach that is. Much as the media whined that it wasn't the right place, in news conferences he did the same, every one of them a lesson, offering depth and analysis and character.
There was plenty of opportunity to listen to him. And if you did, there was method in it, all right. Not just eggs and yoghurts and have sex, but don't have orgies. And yes, he said that too, cackling away as he did so. He was convincing, even if you didn't agree. His players bought into it: at times, with all the commitment to an idea, it sounded a little like a sect. Even if -- and there is no getting away from this -- when it came down to it, his team wasn't, not the way it should have been.
Luis Enrique led, and he did it his way. From the platform to the screen to the walkie talkies and all the way out the exit. It was wild for a while, and it won't be the same anymore, that's for sure.