When it comes to Alvaro Morata and Spain, the big question remains unanswered: Is he — are they — tough enough to overcome obstacles and win Euro 2020?
Monday’s round-of-16 showdown with Croatia (noon ET; stream LIVE on ESPN) will no doubt be a test, given they have been quite the thorn in his — and their — sides over the years.
Morata is, without question, one of the most likeable, affable, “natural” superstar footballers you will ever meet. Let me share a couple of anecdotes.
Five years ago, on Ile de Re off the west coast of France, Spain were domiciled in a beachside hotel ahead of attempting to defend the European Championship crown they so memorably won in 2012.
Security was tight; the previous November had seen a horrific terrorist attack on Paris, with targets including the Bataclan Theatre and a France-Germany friendly at Stade de France.
The Spanish squad was guarded by several heavily armed members of RAID — a tactical arm of the French Police Nationale — including two men who had been involved in freeing hostages from Bataclan.
While there on assignment, we would chat a little as I waited to either record material or send it from a room within the Spain headquarters. One of the men showed me where one of his fingers had been blown clean off during the Bataclan shootout and talked about how he was coping without it, and with the feeling he had narrowly missed a worse fate.
I asked how they were getting on with their VIP guests. Largely, they admitted, Spain’s players neither chatted with, showed any interest in, nor even said “good morning” to those who were safeguarding them.
With one exception: Morata would stop or smile, have a joke or raise a hand in acknowledgment as he and La Roja passed by. They liked the young Madrileno, these hardened, tough, “seen it all” dudes.
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I was reminded of this the other day when Andoni Otxotorena, a Real Sociedad fan, reacted to Morata revealing the damage done by abusers, who had written all kinds of horrific things on social media about the striker and his family, simply because he has failed to convert a few chances for Spain.
Otxotorena used Twitter to recall the occasion when he, as well as his dad, uncle and cousin, had managed to get into a national team hotel before a match and sat on a couch in reception, hoping to get the odd photo or autograph.
Most of the squad brushed past them, while a couple, somewhat reluctantly, posed for a quick photo and then turned tail without much grace. Sergio Ramos and David Silva, at least, could spare a smile and a couple of minutes to say, “Nice to meet you.”
Morata was different. Not only did he happily stop and pose with members of the family for a photo, but when he saw Otxotorena’s dad sitting alone, not joining in the clamour, he went over to this stranger.
Morata asked the father how they had got there, the two chatted about Spain’s form and shared a couple of coffees before the striker embraced the elder man and headed off to his room. What he left behind was an aura, one that would be unfair to expect from all footballers, but one that turned a casual encounter into a life event.
The occasion? It was ahead of Spain’s 2-1 defeat to Croatia in Bordeaux during Euro 2016, a game in which Morata scored, then was substituted with the game level and watched from the bench as Ivan Perisic netted a late breakaway winner.
The result condemned Spain to face Italy in the knockout round in Paris, where Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Gianluigi Buffon had little difficulty dealing with their 22-year-old Juventus teammate. They bullied Morata that day and Spain went out toothlessly.
All of which are reasons what Morata said on Thursday should catch our attention.
“I understand I get criticism for not scoring goals. I’m the first to know and accept it,” Morata told radio station Cadena COPE after Spain thrashed Slovakia 5-0 but he missed a penalty. “I wish people would put themselves in the position of seeing what it is to receive threats and insults to your family, ‘I hope your children die.’ [This week] I had to put my phone away.
“[Memes] don’t bother me, but what annoys me is what my wife has to go through,” he added. “My kids go to Seville with their dad’s name on their shirts. Yes [they’ve had things said to them]. I understand criticism for not doing my job well. But there’s a limit.”
Morata admitted that, in the aftermath of Spain’s draw against Poland, he lay awake for nine hours, “angry because I had a chance and Spain couldn’t win.” As he dealt with not meeting his own expectations, online abuse and threats poured in.
The 28-year-old has been given great gifts in life. He is tall, handsome and athletically superior. He is wealthy beyond the imagination of most, the winner of umpteen important trophies including league titles in Spain and Italy and two Champions Leagues. And still young, he has the world in front of him.
But he is also a husband and a father of three. He has doubts and worries and feels criticism. He is human, basically. Yes, he is devoted to winning and has been a route toward victory for Spain, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Juventus and Chelsea over the years, but he has not simply been one of those “winning is absolutely everything” kind of guys.
But perhaps there is evidence that he is changing. After highlighting the rubbish he has seen recently, he said, “I’m doing OK with it all; perhaps a few years ago it would have really got to me,” before adding, “I get attacked more than other players, I’ve had two choices. To stay silent or to confront it by coming out and talking about it.”
That speaks well of him; he is obliged to punch back when the unfairness reaches his family.
Sid Lowe describes a disconnect between Spain and its fans, particularly the fans’ treatment of Alvaro Morata.
Now, let’s admit, Morata is still a little profligate in front of goal, but that is not to take away from his ability to continually get into scoring positions. A literal example was seen in how he scored against Poland — remember, the game after which he could not sleep? — when lovely anticipation and movement was followed by a sweet finish.
Luis Enrique backed his striker on Sunday, saying the police should investigate the abuse, and Morata has also spoken of the benefits of talking to Spain sports psychologist Joaquin Valdez, a long-time member of the (notoriously hard-minded) Luis Enrique.
“Joaquin helps all of us a lot,” Morata said last week. “It’s great having someone who understands you, who listens when you need him to. I’m even a little afraid of flying but he and I joke about it and just the act of speaking to him about it has helped me.”
Such a confession might help explain why Morata chose to speak out about his hurt and anger over the abuse he received, but now his attention will be on opponents that have been something of a thorn in not just his side, but of the national team.
Croatia did not just start the process of bundling Spain out of the last Euros, but two years later and months after suffering a 6-0 defeat in the sides’ next meeting, Luka Modric & Co. inflicted more pain by knocking La Roja out of the inaugural UEFA Nations League. Morata played in both defeats, but did not get off the bench when Croatia were put to the sword.
On Monday in Copenhagen, Zlatko Dalic’s team will include guys who think they can bully Morata and think they are tougher than Spain in general, and are more committed to winning.
Who knows, perhaps they will be proved right, but I suspect that Morata is no longer the guy who was told by Buffon in 2015 that, “once he stopped feeling sorry for himself he would become a great player” and he needed to “forget his mental hang-ups.”
Spain’s national team is not as Teflon-hard, nor as ruthless as when it listed Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, Xabi Alonso and David Villa in its ranks and won trophy after international trophy a decade ago.
Meet the current squad and you will find them friendly, articulate and ebullient, with none of the cold, determined, “get out of my way” personalities so often needed to excel. And yet there is inner strength to match the talent, which is why I suspect Monday will not prove to be their final say in this tournament.
As for Morata? I hope that it is his night at the Parken Stadium; I hope he wins one for the good guys in life.