Luis Enrique’s young guns firing Spanish dreams

  • Spain impressed in 2021, pushing for silverware once more

  • Luis Enrique’s faith in the new breed vital to their success

  • FIFA.com speaks to Yeremy Pino, just one youngster with a bright Roja future

Few would argue with the fact that Luis Enrique is a coach with character. The former Barcelona, Celta Vigo and Roma boss showed that character as a player, and he has continued to show it since moving into coaching in the 2008/09 season.

It is a hallmark of many of the decisions he has made during his time as Spain coach, and it shines through in particular in what has been perhaps the defining feature of his tenure so far. In naming his squads, he has shown a determination to give opportunities and responsibilities to the country’s most promising young players, regardless of their age and prior experience.

The faith he has shown in them is fully justified. Spain’s new breed has accepted the challenge and shown, match after match, that they deserve to be in the international arena. Their performances have been crucial in 2021, a year in which Spain reached the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2020, finished runners-up in the UEFA Nations League, and qualified for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, their next major challenge, in just 11 months’ time.

"It’s no big risk for Spain to show faith in its young players," said Yeremy Pino, one of Luis Enrique’s young guns, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "They’re playing really well in Europe’s top leagues. And they’re doing it through their own hard work, with the stats to show for it. And when they go [to the national team] they rise to the challenge. That’s why they get called up again.”

Trust well earned

Pino, who turned 19 in October and hails from the Canary Islands, has become a leading light at Villarreal, and is one of the best examples of how Luis Enrique’s character is shaping this new Spain side. Having impressed for his club, he made his U-21 debut in March and was then fast-tracked into the full national team in October, his first cap coming against Italy no less, in a Nations League semi-final.

His selection was a clear statement of intent by Luis Enrique, who was appointed to the Spain job after Russia 2018. The coach’s arrival coincided with the departure of the likes of Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, all of whom played fundamental roles in Spain’s golden era of 2008-2012, which yielded one World Cup and two EURO titles. With several members of the old guard gone, Luis Enrique was determined to bring down the national team’s average age.

That average age was 28 in Russia, and it has continued to fall as the stock of Spain’s young charges has risen. While old hands such as Sergio Busquets, Koke and Jordi Alba remain part of the set-up, the likes of Pedri and Ferran Torres, aged just 19 and 21 respectively, have shouldered the responsibility of leading the team. They are not alone. The 17-year-old Gavi made his debut by starting that Nations League game against Italy. Like several others, he has displayed a maturity well beyond his years, while Pino has produced the same sparkling form he shows for his club.

Self-expression

“Luis Enrique asked me to go out and do what I usually do, to play with confidence, rise to the challenge, and go for it,” said the Villarreal man in reference to his Nations League debut. Pino knows full well what his national team boss expects of him and his fellow newcomers to the side: “He wants us to play with flair, to take people on and to show character on the big occasions, in the big games and finals. We’re gradually picking up experience and that’s important.”

One player stands out above them all: Ansu Fati. Although 2021 has perhaps not been a year to remember for the Barcelona 18-year-old, he seems destined to be one of Spain’s main men at Qatar 2022. “Some young players are match-winners already, like Ansu Fati, Ferran, and Pedri,” said Pino, a UEFA Europa League winner with Villarreal in 2021. “They’re undisputed first choices with their clubs and they’ve really shown what they’re worth.”

Young examples

2021 has been a breakthrough year for Torres. Still only 21, he has proven his goalscoring prowess on the international scene and is something of a role model for the new arrivals. The same can be said for Eric Garcia and Brian Gil – both 20 – and a group of now-experienced internationals who have turned 24 this year: Unai Simon, Mikel Oyarzabal, Carlos Soler and Pau Torres. One year their junior, Dani Olmo has also been around for a while already.

“I’ve learned from them that you don’t give in,” said Pino, reflecting on the importance of coming into a national team whose players set a high standard. “You look at them and they’re only 18 or 20. They’re young and they don’t have much experience, but they’re taking on world-class players as if it were the most normal thing, as if they were one of them already and had spent ten years in the elite. They make me feel relaxed and they show me that I can do it too. It just makes you more confident when you go out and play.”

They all have the same goal: to keep repaying Luis Enrique’s faith in 2022 and end it on a high when the World Cup gets under way in Qatar next November. “It would be crazy to play in it,” said Pino, voicing the hopes of all his young team-mates. “I remember watching in 2010 when I was just seven years old. I cried when we won. Iniesta’s goal was amazing for the whole country, and to feel something like that in a World Cup and win a tournament like that for Spain would be incredible.”

Pino is not the only member of this Roja generation to be thinking that. They know their coach is right behind them and that if they produce for their clubs, they will be given the chance to do the same for their country. The fabled character of Luis Enrique is a guarantee of that.

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 06: Ferran Torres of Spain celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the UEFA Nations League group stage match between Spain and Ukraine at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano on September 06, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

The stats

2012 - The year Spain last won a trophy and last advanced beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup or EURO before reaching the semi-finals at EURO 2020 last summer.

28 - The number of players that have won their first Spain caps under Luis Enrique. Among them are Torres, Fati, Pedri, Simon, Pino, Soler, Gil, and Gavi, all of whom are expected to figure large for La Roja in the years to come.

25.2 - The average age of the Spain squad in the 2021 UEFA Nations League, almost three years younger than the squad that appeared at Russia 2018.

17 years and 62 days - Gavi’s age when he made his international debut, a Spain record. Fati made his Roja debut aged 17 years and 308 days.

12 - The number of goals Torres has scored for his country, in just 22 appearances, with six of them coming in his last nine games. 2021 has seen him emerge as the goalscorer La Roja have been craving.