"Did you get emotional? I can see it in your eyes." Spain's players had been around the pitch applauding their fans and now Sergio Busquets stood at the side of it ready to give a post-match interview in which what most stood out was not what he said so much as how he said it and how difficult he found it to say. "Yes, I'm emotional. I didn't know if I would be able to come back or not, but the group is strong . . . " he said, which was when his voice broke and he stopped.
Here was another pause from the player who has successfully applied so many of them over his career, only this one was involuntary. Normally cold, undemonstrative, this time was different. “It’s okay,” he was reassured. And then Busquets steadied himself and started up again. “We needed a game like this,” he said. No one needed it quite like him and no one needed him quite like Spain and the manager who had waited for him.
After two disappointing draws, la selección had been on edge, elimination suddenly projected as a genuine possibility. Something had to change and Luis Enrique gave four players their first start in the tournament, a decision based as much on psychology, feeling, as football. "Sometimes there's a kind of block, like the energy is not there," he explained. "And sometimes shaking up the hornets' nest you get, well, what we got today. It has its risks but in my experience when it comes off it's very positive."
And so there in Seville were César Azpilicueta, Pablo Sarabia and Eric García. There too was Busquets, but his case was different. The Spain captain was always going to play as soon as he was available. The question was when would that be, and would it be too late?
Having tested positive for Covid-19 on June 6th, Busquets had been driven out of Las Rozas and taken home in an ambulance, forced into quarantine, isolated even from his family, his participation in doubt. But Luis Enrique had been unequivocal. There would be no replacement; there is no replacement. “It’s not that I want to wait for Busi; it’s that I am going to wait for Busi,” he said. “As soon as he has recovered, he will be in the list, for sure.”
“It was hard to watch from home,” Busquets said when he finally returned. “You get much more nervous than if you’re on the pitch. You feel impotent, unable to help.” He had trained alone. “It was boring but it was what I had to do,” he said. “I did double sessions: the first would be gym work, running, then I would do ball work: bringing it out, stepping up with it, running with it, some movements. It’s not the same, nor is the grass, but I tried. I had to hope that it would be okay and that I would be ready if the manager wanted me.”
Back at Las Rozas from June 18th, team-mates welcoming him with chants and applause, Busquets had been wanted by Luis Enrique for the second game, against Poland. Yet while the midfielder’s GPS figures were pretty much as good as his team-mates’, the Spain manager considered it too big a risk. By the third game, he was ready. Besides, by then, the risk was not playing him, Spain’s Euros over before Busquets even got on the pitch.
In Seville Busquets showed why they had waited for him. The opponents were Slovakia – and Stefan Tarkovic’s side were desperately poor, far from the test that Croatia should pose – but Luis Enrique’s response was eloquent. “Madre mía,” he said. “His game was incredible. How he played! But then it was nothing we didn’t already know.”
Playing on the front foot, quite often ahead of the two midfielders flanking him – his problems tend to come when he is pushed back, the game flying by faster either side of him – he completed 44 of 51 passes and won five of seven duels. That passing figure is quite low for him, as a number and percentage, but Spain looked different with him in control. Their passing was more progressive, more forward looking, everything happening more quickly and with greater purpose.
When he was withdrawn to a standing ovation in the second half, his calf muscles tightening, his work was done. “He produced a manual of how to be a pivot, offensively and defensively,” Luis Enrique said. “I think he’s misunderstood, maybe because he has been around for years and people have seen enough of him now, but he is unique, a guarantee.”
As one headline put it: “Spain are better with Busquets.” There is a quiet leadership about his captaincy, a hierarchy built on understanding more than shouting. He is the only man left from the team that won the 2010 World Cup, one who seems to embrace the idea of helping to guide a young, inexperienced generation.
One who, 33 next month, knows that he has fewer of these moments left, and had seen that he could have been denied this opportunity. Asked afterwards if this, his 124th game for Spain, might even be the most important he has played, one of his best moments in football, the man who has played 654 professional matches, lifted every trophy there is and has 32 winners’ medals smiled and nodded. It might be, he said.
“They weren’t easy days, there was a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “It doesn’t depend on how you are or a certain number of days until you’re back; it depends on a PCR being negative and you never know what will happen. Some people take 10 days [to be negative], some 20-odd. I wanted to be with this spectacular group, to try to help them, to live a European Championship which will surely be my last . . . When I saw the press conference [in which Luis Enrique said he would wait], that touched me emotionally. I hope I can repay that faith.”
This was a start, that’s for sure. “He had a bad time of it, his family did, his loved ones,” Luis Enrique said after Spain had finally got the result they needed, their tournament starting here. “But waiting for Busquets was a very easy decision to make.” – Guardian