‘‘The ball was a long way away and en route to picking it up and taking the penalty lots of thoughts go through your mind,” Mikel Oyarzabal said. As he set off, he left eight men standing on the halfway line. On the touchline, there were 27 people, arms around each other’s shoulders in a long line. Four more stood just to the side. Three others made up a second row. Behind them were the players’ families. Officially, there were 499 Spain fans in the stadium. And behind them were 9.7m watching on television back home.
If there was a thought they shared, an image in their minds, it was Vienna 2008, the penalty shootout that changed everything, carrying Spain into the semi-finals, ending one era – 44 years without a major trophy – and starting another. The moment when they broke that barrier: destined always to fall at the same, quarter-final stage, that day they made it through and for six years became the team that always won. Forget the final, Fernando Torres later said, speaking for all of them, that was the day they knew they had won Euro 2008.
Here they were again, 13 years on: another European Championship quarter-final, another penalty shootout, another moment to change everything. After three tournament failures, a chance to build towards success again. Luis Enrique stood slightly apart, arms crossed. “It was the calmest I’ve ever been in a shootout,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do there: what happens, happens.”
What he could do had already been done. As they had gathered he told his players that, win or lose, not to worry. He had let them decide who would take the penalties, just as let them decide whether to practise during the tournament. They had said yes. Luis Enrique had also removed Pedri and sent on Rodri in the 119th minute so that he could take one. Standing by the goal, Unai Simón held a black towel. In it were hidden his notes.
Rodri missed, but Simón saved twice. “He has balls this big,” Koke said afterwards, holding his hands wide apart. “I had told him it was going to be his day,” Oyarzabal said.
It would be Oyarzabal’s day too. It was a long walk alone but once he got there he said there were no doubts. He knew where this was going. On his haunches, Simón watched the ball hit the net and the Real Sociedad forward heading towards him, followed by the rest. There was a race, 43 of them running towards the corner.
Poor Yan Sommer stood alone in the goal, holding the ball. “I would have given him the MVP award,” Simón said, but he was the one they gave it to. His teammates piled in, trampling on that towel. Simón grabbed Luis Enrique and squeezed the air out of him. “I went a bit wild,” the goalkeeper said and why wouldn’t he?
It hadn’t been easy – it hadn’t always been good – but Spain were through to the semi-final. When that has happened, they have never been beaten.
It was a liberation, Gerard Moreno said. That went for all of them but for him especially. Had Oyarzabal not scored, it would have “eaten at my mind”, he said. He had missed the game’s best chance, one of a small handful of opportunities. “It was a good job it was Gerard,” Luis Enrique said. “Had it been [Álvaro] Morata you would have laid into him.”
Instead, there was celebration and relief. For some, a hint of vindication as well. “No one backed us,” Oyarzabal said. “There was loads of criticism when things were not going so well, but now we can feel that people are behind us.”
There is still room for doubtse: Spain have drawn three of their five games. This was their worst performance, Luis Enrique saying the game had changed with the red card just when the selección appeared to be at their most vulnerable.
The Spain coach turned up in the press room wearing the Naranjito T-shirt he had worn in Copenhagen – “Don’t worry, I’ve washed it,” he said – and accepted that it had been difficult. “We suffered. But what did you expect? A military parade? For us to walk it? It’s a quarter-final. I said we were among the eight candidates at the start of the tournament; now we’re among the four.”
He said Spain had been better than some suggested and all the more so after what they have overcome, itself reason for optimism. “It’s been 33 days and everything has happened, and I mean everything,” he said. “Anyone who watches our games objectively would recognise that in the first game we were superb and all that was missing was the goal; in the second we were less good but still had plenty of chances to have won, that the third game was wonderful and the fourth a work of art. In the fifth, we lacked the fortune to have scored more.”
They did at least have the fortune to score first and to win from the spot so now comes the sixth, which was another reason attention turned to 2008. That day, Spain defeated Italy, who they face at Wembley on Tuesday and are their greatest football rivals, often portrayed as their polar opposite. At times, this is projected as a clash of cultures, sometimes even a moral battle. An epic one, certainly.
“Italy is the Azzurri singing the national anthem at the top of their lungs, their warrior spirit, their competitive character, their four World Cups, their eternal Chiellini and Bonnucci … and their meetings with Spain,” Marca wrote. They have played 37 times and won 11 each. This will be the fourth Euros in a row when they meet. None of those felt as significant on Friday night as 2008, the parallels powerful, the script similar, Simón and Oyarzabal becoming Iker Casillas and Cesc Fàbregas.
That was the start of a new age and the end of an old one when it felt as if somehow Italy would always win, by fair means or more likely foul. That was the claim at least, expressed in a recurring image revived on Friday, inevitably everywhere the morning after, and not about go away. There will be talk of vendetta for sure, although real revenge would come against Ukraine, where is Mauro Tassotti an assistant coach.
At the 1994 World Cup, Italy defeated Spain in the quarter-final, the referee missing the moment when Tassotti smashed Luis Enrique’s nose open with his elbow inside the penalty area. Back then, there was blood all over his face. On Friday night, there was just a smile.