Bounceability or resilience, whatever the word, the Swiss and Spaniards have pounds of it. Little more than a fortnight ago, Switzerland were ripped apart by a galloping Italy and were on the way out.
A few days later, Spain were under the cosh, held by Lewandowski’s Poland having earlier drawn against Sweden. “Tikitaka, so predictable”, was the unanimous verdict.
Gerard Moreno hadn’t missed a penalty all season but in the suffocating heat of Seville, he faltered. Alvaro Morata, despite his goal, was fodder to the social media hounds. The permutations were up, and many wondered whether the 2008 and 2012 champions were about to be shunned out. But like life, football fortunes can change in a blink of an eye, or a heartbeat. Maybe, all La Furia Roja needed were a few caustic words from former Dutch star Rafael Van der Vaart who was soon reminded of his failure to stop an inspired Andres Iniesta in the 2010 World Cup final.
Coach Luis Enrique almost seemed like a soothsayer when he said, “I am 100 per cent convinced we are a bottle of champagne about to be uncorked.”
The delicious cava flowed, full and creamy with amazing finesse, but there was a lemony twist. In the 12th minute of the final Group E match against Slovakia, Morata’s penalty was saved by Martin Dubravka. The writing was on the wall, and fingers tapped on the cell phone with the choicest of foul words.
But the marionettist up above pulled a different string. ‘Raz, dva, tri, dajme (one, two, three, four) gól’ urged the Slovakian fans in southern Spain. There was one, but ironically, in their own net when the saviour turned the villain – Dubravka bizarrely palming in a rebound off the woodwork to hand Spain the advantage.
Spain haven’t stopped scoring since. It was a pleasant change from Mundo Deportivo‘s lament ‘Espana Aumenta Sus Dudas’ (Doubts are growing about Spain) to ‘DiarioAS’ screaming headline ‘El gol vuelve a querer a Espana’ (Goals fall in love with Spain again). Enrique oiled the key with his belief, support and exhortations, and it turned. Ten goals in two games with a high dose of excitement and suffering. The early stage was an exercise in building cast-iron characters like Unai Simon who stood up to dents and scratches and rescuing tortured souls like Morata who had been to hell and back.
And now for Switzerland, Vladimir Petkovic’s Switzerland. At the helm since 2014, the Sarajevo-born coach had guided the nation past every group stage obstacle but the future looked bleak after the lashing in Rome. Labelled as flops, the report card was all red with the coach marked 4.5 points. But the immigrant mentor, a former social worker who had negotiated numerous life hurdles, turned to his players and said, “There’s a match left, and three points could get us to the next round.”
His open letter published in the Swiss newspaper Schweiz am Wochenende had the apology: “For you, for us and for 4,000 Swiss who travelled to Rome, we are very sorry”, and the promise: “Against Turkey we have to bring all of our values and virtues back to the pitch,” and the conclusion: “…We can all be happy together on Sunday evening.”
Happiness rolled, and then ecstasy. A topsy-turvy maddening night in Bucharest against favourites France started with early hope, a missed penalty, followed by a double gash, a near-death blow, late rejuvenation and a final-minute resurrection. After the storm, the lull and then Yann Sommer, a name to remember for all summers, unleashed the emotions.
Spain vs Switzerland, pick your team. So, the one to be missed in St Petersburg is bottle blond Granit Xhaka, who was vilified for flying in a hairdresser from Zurich to Rome. And Morata to score?… Make up your mind, capricious fans, fortune can be fickle too.