Amine Gouiri was flailing his arms in frustration. It was the 62nd minute of the game, he had the ball not too far from the box, his back was to the goal, crowded by defenders, and he was searching for a teammate. No one was near. The tall, curly haired Yacine Adli, his partner-in-crime in the matches so far, was far out at the centre line. Gouiri passed the ball to him, but the threat of the attack evaporated with it. It was the theme of the evening — France, who had attacked so well in the tournament, sat back, Gouiri was stranded without anyone feeding him, and Spain increasingly grew in stature. It took a 90th-minute penalty from Abel Ruiz to sink France, whose players just fell to the ground, but it can be safely said that the better team won.
The scenes at the end were as you would expect: Music blared in the Spanish dressing room, Ruiz walked around with his JBL speaker and beside them, sadness had gatecrashed the French party. The players were kicking and screaming at the walls of the room, and coach Lionel Rouxel was a miffed man. Nothing had gone right for him and his boys on the day.
Yahia Fofana, France’s goalkeeper, did save a couple of shots at goal, but through the evening he couldn’t decide when to leave the box, and rush out to stop an attacker. There were at least a couple of moments when he hesitated, leaving the coach agitated, but his defenders managed to save the day.
Ironically, it was his decision to leave his line that ended in a penalty. He rushed out, but was hoodwinked by Batista Mendy at the edge of the box, and just as the Spaniard’s right foot was kicking into gear, defender William Bianda tripped him — the French coach would later say that was a silly mistake but the untenanted goalmouth was perhaps the trigger — and that was that.
Ruiz, brown eyes, thin beard sticking out, and face red in the humidity, was ready. He says he can’t remember his first penalty in a competitive game but does recall the one he missed against Germany in the European Championship. And he had a plan for the penalty. “I pick the ball, place it there, remain confident, and kick.” The goalkeeper dived to his left, and by the time the ball was bobbing in the net, Ruiz and teammates had gone on a manic victory run. It was Ruiz who scored a penalty the last time these two teams met in May when Spain triumphed.
The first half saw equal possession from both teams but it could be said that France were more purposeful — they had 8 shots at goal, five more than Spain. Not that their attack possessed any real threat, but they at least strung together a few chances. It took a defensive error to give them the lead — the passing from the box wasn’t good, and Gouiri pounced. He swiftly sent the ball out to the left flank where Pintor rushed in, and finished the job. Near the end of the half, Spain equalised. There were frenetic little passes near the goal but no one took a real shot and the ball slid out to the far end. Ferran Torres not only took control but sent a fine aerial cross and Juan Miranda headed it in.
Spain changed spots in the second half. Even as France began to sit back, the Iberians started to press forward. A tap here, a pass there, they started to own the space: they came from the flanks, they moved in from the centre, and the chances started to come.
Every now and then, Sergio Gomez would burst through into the box but couldn’t take a proper hit — a cross deflected off his knee, a weak shot didn’t create any problem for the goalkeeper, and once, he came up with a fine curling free kick but the ball just about curved away from the post.
Ruiz, a boy who moved from Valencia to Barcelona, too began to create opportunities. He moved in to an open ball from a free kick, and managed to get past the scrum of defenders but couldn’t beat the goalkeeper.
A union of styles
A few days ago, Ruiz had spoken about how the team had most of the players from Barca and Real Madrid but are united in the way they played. The two clubs bring different styles but he was clear in his mind that there was no clash when it came to the national team.
Even France coach Rouxel was impressed. “Their play was tighter, as a team they had more rhythm and ball control, they will go far in the tournament as they are well balanced and good in attack and defence.”
David Cartlidge, an English journalist who has worked as a scout in Spain for many years and raved about Ruiz and Torres, had talked about the difference between France and Spain a few months ago. “In France, I’ve noticed their obsession with physicality at a young age. In Spain, it’s technically and tactically focused. There’s a lot more focus on the mental side of the game with Spain from a young age. You have to be switched on tactically; it’s intense. Some may say it can reduce the fun aspect for a young player, but it shapes them better. Football is fun, but it’s also serious.”
France gave us a lot of fun moments in the tournament, but in the end the tactically stronger Spain prevailed.
QuarterFinal: Spain v Iran