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LUIS Enrique.—Reuters
LUIS Enrique.—Reuters

MADRID: Former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique was appointed Spain’s new coach on Monday after previous incumbent Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the World Cup in what turned out to be a disappointing campaign.

“Luis Enrique’s appointment as coach for the next two years was approved unanimously,” Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish football federation, told reporters. “I like his commitment. He has let better financial opportunities pass in order to be national team coach. This coach fulfills all the parameters to take charge of the team. Luis Enrique is bringing his backroom staff, but this is a matter he will speak about next week.”

The 48-year-old will have the tough task of reviving a national team deflated after three consecutive failures at major tournaments, the latest their World Cup loss to hosts Russia — ranked 70th in the world — on penalties in the last 16.

Before that, Spain were humiliated at the hands of the Netherlands in 2014 and beaten by Italy at Euro 2016 — their 2008-2012 winning streak but a distant memory.

The national team’s then sporting director Fernando Hierro stepped in hastily to replace him and led Spain to the last 16, before stepping down after the tournament.

Changing the coach two days before Spain’s opening game did not likely benefit the side’s chances.

Enrique, as both player and coach, didn’t fit the typical model of the cerebral tactician steeped in the ways of Barcelona. But his fiery spirit proved to be just as successful while it lasted.

He started out as a player for his local Sporting Gijon team on Spain’s Atlantic coast. He then won one league title while playing for Real Madrid before moving to fierce rivals Barcelona in 1996, where he went on to win two more La Liga crowns and became the captain before retiring in 2004.

His only coaching experience outside Spain was a frustrating time at Roma in 2011-12. He rebounded, though, by making Celta Vigo one of the country’s most attractive attacking sides before replacing Gerardo Martino at Barcelona in 2014.

The improvement under Enrique was immediate. With Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez scoring lots of goals, Barcelona repeated the rare treble of Champions League-Spanish league-Copa del Rey titles first won under Pep Guardiola.

Overall, Enrique’s achievements compare well to Guardiola’s. Barcelona won nine of a possible 13 titles in his three years in charge, compared to 14 of a possible 19 trophies in four seasons under Guardiola.

At his presentation as Barce­lona’s coach, Enrique said his strength was motivating players.

“I don’t rely too heavily on tactical know-how, instead I focus on managing a group, managing egos,” he said. “There is work that goes on during the week, work based on knowing each player. I try to be everything a leader is.”

That is not to say Luis Enrique didn’t experiment with formations. He would sometimes deploy a three-man defence instead of his standard four-man backline.

He loves endurance sports and has participated in triathlons since retiring as a player.

Enrique achieved his greatest success at the beginning of his stint at Barcelona. But he acknowledged that as he became tired by the constant grind and demands of the club, his ability to rally the team faded, as did his patience with journalists, with whom he had more than one run-in.

In March 2017, Enrique announced he was leaving Barcelona a week before his side pulled off one of the best comebacks in the history of the Champions League.

“I need to disconnect,” he said. “I see other coaches who enjoy their profession for years, but that is not my case.”

Barcelona dug deep for one last display of masterful football under Enrique, producing a 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain to overturn a 4-0 loss. The energy of the players spent, however, the team then fell to Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018