MADRID (AP) — Spain coach Luis de la Fuente has found a way to turn the doubters into supporters.
Nearly a year after he was appointed amid a wave of skepticism, De la Fuente now has widespread backing at the helm of La Roja, having turned Spain into a contender again and comfortably securing the team a spot in the 2024 European Championship.
Spain qualified for next year’s tournament in Germany on Sunday with a 1-0 win at Norway — the team’s sixth straight triumph since a loss at Scotland in March had left De la Fuente under pressure just two games into his stint.
“We are always learning,” De la Fuente said. “At that moment the analysis was different than it is now. We’ve just reached an important objective and we have to keep working and learning. We recognize what was done well, but we know there are still things to improve.”
The 62-year-old De la Fuente replaced Luis Enrique after the team’s loss to Morocco in the round of 16 of the World Cup in Qatar. He was then relatively unknown in Spain after spending years coaching the nation’s youth squads.
His first match in charge was a home win in a qualifier against Norway in which Spain struggled from the start, and the subsequent loss to Scotland put De la Fuente on the hot seat early on. Many didn’t think he had the experience to take charge of the national team at the time.
But after the slow start, De la Fuente also helped Spain win the Nations League with victories over Italy in the semifinals and Croatia in a penalty shootout in the final. Spain then routed Georgia 7-1 and Cyprus 6-0 in qualifiers, and defeated Scotland 2-0 at home last week before securing its spot at Euro 2024 against Erling Haaland’s Norway on Sunday.
“I’m happy with the work that we’ve done,” De la Fuente said. “When you achieve something like this, things must have been done right. But in soccer one day you are up and the other you are down again, so we have to stay balanced. I’m happy now, but I also stayed composed in the tougher moments.”
De la Fuente put Spain back on track in part by betting on the talent of some younger players. He kept players like Gavi, Ansu Fati and Pedri — who played at the World Cup — and brought in others such as 16-year-old Lamine Yamal, the Barcelona sensation.
His experience with the nation’s youth squads proved important, and he now has his job secured for a while.
“We have a team for the future, it’s what I’m most excited about,” he said. “We worked hard to be where we are and we deserve it. We have to enjoy it.”
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