Unai Simón’s redemption mirrors Spain’s – and now anything is possible

When the half-time whistle went most of Spain’s players headed towards the tunnel in the northern corner of Parken but David de Gea went in the other direction. Instead of turning right, the Manchester United goalkeeper made his way across the pitch to meet Unai Simón and accompany him on the long walk to the dressing room. Spanje had equalised against Croatia, a lifeline for all of them, but Simón had made the kind of mistake that could have put them out and one that might never go away, feeding a million memes and a generation of jokes; the type of error that he and De Gea knew can sink a team and sink a man too.

A moment was all it took for Pedri’s back pass to slip past Simón’s foot and into the net, by 44 metres the longest own goal scored at a major tournament. It was so quick, so unexpected, so frankly silly that some of Spain’s players hadn’t even seen it, their eyes, like the goalkeeper’s, already on the next move. But they had heard it and felt it, ook. Now they were determined that it would be only a moment, not their fate. As Simón and De Gea ducked into the tunnel to the dressing room, teammates and staff were waiting for them.

“We’re all with Unai,” insisted the captain, Sergio Busquets. Which was easy enough to say after the match, victory secured and redemption complete, but they had demonstrated that during the game too. After that goal Croatia smelled blood, grasping for the opportunity to end it, to push Simón and his teammates over the edge. Luis Enrique later admitted that Spain had entered “a state of shock”. Standing there alone in the sunshine, Simón was especially exposed so they did what they could to see him through.

When he came to clear a through ball soon after, Spain’s coach leapt up and applauded as if a goal had been scored or an amazing save made, which it hadn’t. Not yet. When the equaliser was scored by Pablo Sarabia there was a dash to the corner, but there was also a turn to the keeper, the moment shared with him, his relief made theirs too. “How do you support someone in a situation like that?” said Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Football Federation. 'Wel, exactly the way they did.”

“Unai has a very strong mentality: he’s ambitious but calm, ook,” Busquets said. “The important thing is to get back up again because things happen in football. After something like what happened to Unai it’s even more important.”

At that point, Simón could have been forgiven for feeling like throwing in the towel. By the end of a wild evening, he was throwing in his shirt, some fortunate fan taking home a memento of a match they would never forget, proof of the miracle they had witnessed. And when the goalkeeper finally made his way off they were waiting for him again. This time to celebrate.

“It’s unusual to get a second chance like this,” Luis Enrique said. He was talking about all of them. Specifically, he was talking about Spain reacting to losing a 3-1 lead in five minutes, the kind of trauma that can end a tournament and a team. Yet it was certainly applicable to Simón, along with Álvaro Morata perhaps the most startling of all those redemption stories. Not least because Simón allowed them to reach for that second chance by preventing the Croatian comeback becoming complete with an astonishing save at the start of extra time and at 3-3. “That was decisive,” Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s manager, later said.

Simón had also played a part in the second goal, providing the first pass for a move that ended with César Azpilicueta steaming in to score. Projecting that as any kind of assist would be an enormous exaggeration of course, but nor should it be dismissed as insignificant. Because recovery, braveness, is not just expressed in saves, it is in revealed by a refusal to give in to that fear. In a determination to do the right thing, sticking to the principles of play – even though that principle is part of what got you into this fine mess in the first place. Under Luis Enrique that means the keeper playing, passing not just booting it, continuing to take risks in the conviction it will bring rewards.

As Simón insisted in a fascinating interview after Spain’s draw with Sweden at the start of the European Championship, “the goalkeeper is not there just to save it, at least with Luis Enrique”. That is part of the reason why, for all the debate that surrounded Spain’s goalkeepers before this tournament, for all the doubts there had been about Simón after a difficult season for Athletic Bilbao in which errors crept in and uncertainty seemed to as well, the Spain coach stuck with him.

“You have to find the free man, which is often me, and if the opponents come to press me that means there’s someone else unmarked,” Simón explained to Ladislao Moñino in El País. “It can look risky but it’s studied and worked upon. Are you scared to have the ball? You shouldn’t be because that’s how we play. If it goes wrong sometimes, no problem because you have to take risks. Luis Enrique has made me and the team see that.”

There is always a way, some hope of the unexpected, and Simón knows that. A striker who became a goalkeeper because, in his own words, he was “very big and very lazy”, because he enjoyed throwing himself about in the mud of the Basque Country, it is only three years since he made his senior debut – and it still came sooner than he could have expected.

In die somer van 2018, Simón had just turned 21 and was the club’s fourth-choice goalkeeper, sent out on loan to Elche in the second division. But then things started happening. Kepa Arrizabalaga left for Chelsea,

en, five days later, a series of circumstances took him from fourth choice to first and suddenly left him standing there at San Mamés, the ground they call the cathedral and a place where they take goalkeeping seriously. The place where the legendary José Ángel Iribar, dressed in all black and considered the best in Spain’s history, played for 18 jare. A mentor, a sage, he always told Unai Simón: “Don’t worry, it happens to us all.”

Not like this it doesn’t, but there was a second chance – and, when Andrej Kramaric closed in, an astonishing save to keep Spain in it. “Unai has given a lesson, not just to his teammates but for any kid,” Luis Enrique said. “Don’t concern yourself with what you get wrong and what you get right; concern yourself with what you try. Today he came back from an error – a clear error, we can’t hide it – gave us an extra man with the ball, believed in himself once more, made spectacular saves and showed the personality we knew he had, bringing strength not just to himself but to any kid who wants to be a professional footballer.”

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