2014 World Cup, Spain start their title defense with a 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands followed by a 2-0 loss to Chile. Eventually, they are eliminated from the group stage.
2016 Euro Cup, Antonio Conte’s Italy hand Spain a 2-0 defeat in the Round of 16. Once again, Spain fails to defend its title.
2018 World Cup, the misery continues. For the third time in a row, Spain fails to make a mark at an international tournament, falling to hosts Russia in the Round of 16.
This had been the story of the Spanish National Football Team since their golden days when they won both the World Cup and the Euros between 2010 and 2012. A disappointing Euros campaign in 2016 led to the RFEF replacing Vicente del Bosque with Julen Lopetegui. Two years of hard work ended within a few days, with about-to-be Real Madrid manager Lopetegui relieved of his duties a week before the World Cup 2018 began. Sporting Director Fernando Hierro then took over as the interim coach, but he resigned from both positions after yet another disappointing tournament.
The post-World Cup 2018 period can probably be viewed as the start of a new generation of Spanish players. With a series of changes at the top, the RFEF appointed former Atletico de Kolkata head coach Jose Francisco Molina as their Sporting Director.
ATK, or the then Atletico de Kolkata, in 2016, had parted ways with Antonio Lopez Habas after a rift with the management. The Atletico Madrid connection enabled ATK to replace Habas with Jose Molina, who went on to join Pune City FC. Molina had served as the first team goalkeeper of Atletico Madrid during 1995-2000. Having finished fourth in the group stage, ATK under Molina made it to the knockout stages, where they played Mumbai City FC. Having won the first leg 3-2, they held on for a 0-0 draw in the second. The manager’s bravery and confidence in the squad players were lauded for when he made nine changes to the team, thus benching key players for the decisive second leg.
Steve Coppel’s Kerala Blasters faced ATK in the final match, which finished 1-1 after extra time. ATK won its second trophy in history after a heroic penalty save from Debjit Majumder and Jewel Raja’s decisive shot. The manager, Jose Molina, was pivotal in their trophy charge. ATK’s tenure under his leadership was marked by bold and confident decisions and a well-rounded approach to attacking football. His managerial influence was evident when Jewel Raja, former ATK player, said to goal.com, “I have never seen a coach like Jose Francisco Molina. I remember other than Shilton Paul, every single player in the squad got game time. He is a unique manager. To him, every single player is equal in the team.“
Molina’s first task was to find a manager capable of handling the young kids who were about to become part of Spain’s upcoming generations. Retirements of veterans like David Silva, Gerard Pique, and Andres Iniesta had left the squad handicapped, and it was up to Molina and co to find the perfect replacements for them. Molina succeeded in his first task by choosing Luis Enrique to be Spain’s leader. If you’ve followed Enrique at Barcelona, you know that the aura and leadership he brings to the dressing room is unmatched. A young Spanish team could not ask for more, right? Molina’s first goal was the upcoming Euros, aside from the ongoing Nations League. Spain has done well in the Nations League so far, finishing top of Group-4 and playing Italy in the semi-finals.
Euros presented an even more formidable challenge and reaching the semi-finals has not been easy for Spain. The Barcelona wonder-kid Ansu Fati, who was set to lead the Spanish attack, suffered a serious injury that forced him out of action for 8 months, thus missing the Euros. Sergio Ramos, who was expected to captain Spain, also had an injury-riddled season, and the lack of game time forced Molina and Enrique to make a brave decision to exclude him. The call has worked pretty well so far, with Spain conceding only 5 goals. Having Kepa and De Gea, the two top goalkeepers in Spain, in poor club forms, was also a conundrum to be resolved. Enrique didn’t hesitate to bench David de Gea and start the inexperienced Unai Simon, a brave act made possible by Jose Molina at the top.
The Euros also started on a poor note, with Sergio Busquets, Spain’s leader in the absence of Ramos, out due to COVID. The situation inside the Spain camp was handled pretty well. Molina was quick to act and shut the noise from outside, stating, “The situation we are experiencing is one of tranquillity and normalcy, a situation that clubs have previously experienced at the national level. Since the pandemic began, everyone has had a similar situation“.
Molina has seen positive results from the project he undertook three years ago. Pedri, Eric Garcia, Jose Gaya, Pau Torres, and goalkeeper Unai Simon’s performances have proven that Molina has successfully integrated the youngsters with the national team so far. Spain has shown courage even in the face of adversities, something injected into the squad by Luis Enrique and Jose Molina. Under Molina, Spain has proven that they are over the golden generation hangover and are ready to compete again for trophies. After 8 years of disappointment, they are now just one game away from playing in the Euro finals.
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