“Every game is a new game,” Unai Simón said, and this really was. After two hours of football and 27 shots, Spain hadn’t found their own way past Switzerland, and so now for something completely different: now the quarter-final would be decided in a shootout.
“I tortured myself and watched it six or seven times,” the goalkeeper had admitted of his error against Croatia in the last 16; this time the torture would be everyone else’s. As for him, this would become a moment he’ll happily watch back many more times than that.
When extra time began, London Calling boomed around this arena. The question was: calling who? By the time the final whistle blew, with Granit Xhaka in the middle of the circle of red shirts, Switzerland could have been forgiven for believing that it might be them. A man down for 42 minuti, penalties had been their target after all and a shootout had served them well against France in the previous round. E Spagna? Bene, they had missed their last five penalties.
Worse, the last time Spain had been in Russia their tournament had ended in a shootout defeat, while that run of five misses began against Switzerland. That night Sergio Ramos was twice denied by Yan Sommer, the man who had stopped Kylian Mbappé four days ago and just stopped Spain here. A yellow figure who had saved almost a quarter of the penalties he had faced, seemingly destined now to be still standing at the end. All the more so when the first man up, Sergio Busquets, struck against the post.
Make that six.
Mario Gavranovic scored to give Switzerland the lead, the pressure on Spain greater than ever. Until Unai arrived. 6piedi 4 pollici, all in orange and leaping along his line, even from high in this stadium he looked huge; a partire dal 12 yards he must have appeared immense.
Which may have been why Fabian Schär, who put his foot through the ball against France, struck with less power and less conviction this time. Simón saved that. He saved from Manuel Akanji too. Then he watched Rubén Vargas hit over the bar, and break down in tears. “Are you giving me that too?” Simón would grin afterwards.
It wasn’t done yet. Simón still had to stand and watch Mikel Oyarzabal place the ball on the spot for the second time this year. Last time, he had been on the line unable to prevent Oyarzabal from scoring the only goal in the Copa del Rey final: opponents then in the first all-Basque final, now they were teammates, their parents sitting on the flight to Saint Petersburg together, and when the Real Sociedad forward scored he made straight for the Athletic keeper.
So did everyone else, streaming from the halfway line and the touchline, meeting in the corner. In the middle, Simón was screaming. If redemption had come with that decisive save and Spain’s comeback against Croatia, what was this? Something big, that’s for sure.
What that had meant was almost metaphysical, according to another former Athletic and Spain No 1, Andoni Zubizarreta who wrote in El País of Albert Camus – the philosopher-goalkeeper who learned all he knew about morality and obligations from football. Simón’s approach was blunter, startlingly matter of fact, no room for excuses.
Taking advice from the Jacksons, he refused to blame it on the sunshine. Era, Egli ha detto, just an “accident”, an “error.” One that didn’t affect him then and wouldn’t again.
Luis Enrique noted how Rafa Nadal extolled having “a goldfish’s memory” and insisted that Simón was the same. It was gone, don’t go back, go forward. Which was partly why if that was an accident this was not. Simón carried on against Croatia and saved them. Here he did so too, getting the reward Sommer would have deserved too. “This shows what stuff he’s made of,” Luis Enrique said. “He’s got balls this big,” Koke said. After the Croatia game he had thrown his shirt into the crowd. At the end of this, he was keeping it but as he stood waiting to be presented with his man of the match award, he stood shouting: “This is for you.” It was for all of them, a place in the semi-finals, a strength, a togetherness, echoes of Italy in 2008. Maybe it can happen after all.
“I’m not the hero: we all did it. We deserved this before extra time, we deserved it after extra time, but it wasn’t to be,” the goalkeeper said. With penalties, it was.
“This a euphoric moment, I got very excited, very emotional, all that fury, all that desire. Something inside me wanted this. You have to erase your mistakes, forget about them. But you have to erase your good moments too because of what awaits. We can enjoy this now, but tomorrow we prepare the semi-final. A lesson for life? Every game is a new game.”