Unai Simón unzips the washbag he carries everywhere and carefully takes out a piece of paper. It is tiny, but its significance to him is huge. Unfolding it gently, he shows the code in black letters, symbols and numbers which were his instructions from the Euro 2020 quarter-final shootout. In the previous round, his mistake, allowing a 44m back pass to slip under his foot into the net, could have led to Spain being eliminated; four days later, his penalty saves against Switzerland took them to the semi. “A liberation,” he calls it.
Those nights in Copenhagen and St Petersburg changed everything, and not just for Simón: la selección were to be taken seriously again and he truly felt he was No 1. As Simón explains his approach to the game, the preparation and thinking behind it, the goalkeeper’s role emerges as the embodiment of their commitment to an identity; an indication of how the whole team is set up.
Oh, and he says penalties are not a lottery. It’s there in black and white. “I’ll show you,” he says, referring to his precious slip of paper. There’s a reason it travels with him like a lucky charm. Spain had gone from being crowned champions at three major tournaments in a row to not winning a knockout game in the next three. Reaching the semi-final and taking eventual winners Italy to a shootout at Wembley meant their status as contenders was restored. In London, they came within a fingertip of the final. In Qatar, where they are due to arrive on Friday, they aspire to go further.
Simón already has. He had been acutely aware of what his error against Croatia at Euro 2020 might have meant. And yet, unshakeable, he did not play like it in the rest of that match and accepts his mistake – an own goal credited to Pedri – is a byproduct of the way Spain play. Every game it seems there’s at least one moment when the crowd suffers a collective coronary with the ball at his feet and one of these days, he says, his grandparents, Juanito and Carmina, will have a panic attack. But he tells them he’s not doing it for the thrill and nor can he let the fear in.
“I watch it back sometimes and I think: ‘Shit, that was mad what I did.’ Or: ‘How difficult was that pass?’ But that’s how the manager wants us to play. I understand very clearly what I have to do. I’m used to the other team being right on top of us, pressing us. We make a mistake every now and then but get it right far more. My mum has an awful time watching me. She doesn’t go to games. My dad does, and when that Croatia goal went in it was hard, but he can take it.”
So can Simón. There’s a seriousness about him as he speaks that reflects how he plays, analytical and inalterable. Errors are inevitable – “I’ve made a lot of terrible mistakes since I was a kid, crazy goals” – but Spain’s style means doing it again, welcoming risks, so long as they’re the right risks. “The best thing that can happen is you get the same ball again, control it and play. If it’s a technical error, of execution, not a conceptual one, all you can think is: ok, next pass. A conceptual error is different: that means we haven’t understood what the manager wants. If it’s a pass played too short to the full-back, say, and it’s been intercepted, that doesn’t mean the next one goes to the centre-back instead: it’s the same ball. You can’t stop playing that pass.”
It’s about understanding which is not automatic, although it sounds it listening to Simón run through the options, describing how he waits for avenues to open, drawing players and pressure on to himself to release the “third man”. It’s hard to keep up with him. “International football is quick, you take decisions fast. Your job is to open the pitch, create space, passing lines; the job of the goalkeeper is to orient the play towards the free man. It’s not completely mechanised; you interpret. There are concepts I had no idea about two years ago. Now, I have the confidence to play. If you can’t adapt, football moves on and you don’t.”
For Luis Enrique, the keeper-as-player is non-negotiable – a key reason why David de Gea is not in the squad with Robert Sánchez and David Raya chosen ahead of him – but Simón says that does not eclipse more traditional duties. “Sometimes I think we’re getting a bit crazy in how we look at keepers,” he says. “What is his primary job still? Stop the ball going past him. A modern keeper, like [Marc-André] ter Stegen, has both.”
Simón proved he can do both in the remainder of that pulsating last-16 extra-time victory over Croatia. But he is aware that redemption requires results and is indebted to his teammates for the way they rallied after his mistake to claim a memorable 5-3 win. “I had wanted to prove that I could be the selección’s goalkeeper. If we’d lost 1-0, even if I’d gone on to play as well, it wouldn’t be recognised. Luckily that happened in the 20th minute, not the 95th. People remember how I overcame the mistake, but I needed the team to play brilliantly and end up winning.”
All of which put him back on the spot. “Against Switzerland and Italy we had penalties from all the players: even [goalkeeper Yann] Sommer. If [Giorgio] Chiellini, say, isn’t usually a penalty taker, maybe there’s one from a shootout at the end of some friendly years ago. I have all the information on the paper, by my towel: a type, a direction, the player’s number.
“That’s important because I’m not great at picking out faces. “I’m leaning on the post and until I see the number on the shorts I don’t know who’s walking up. I look at my paper. Just doing that sometimes makes the taker nervous: it could be blank! I’ve spoken to forwards who say: ‘Bloody hell, when I see the keeper looking at his chuleta, his cheat-sheet, I think: Shit, he knows where I’m going’.”
It’s not just where. “There are two different things. First, the key is: how do they approach the ball? Some look at the keeper, others only look at the ball because they know which way they’re going. Then there’s direction. Before I studied takers, I doubted when to commit, when to dive, so I would go too late. When you know a player doesn’t look at you, so won’t change, you can go sooner. You might choose wrong, it’s not an exact science, but if you guess right you have more chance of getting there.”
Which is why it hurt when Andrea Belotti scored. It’s not diving the wrong way that upsets Simón; it’s going the right way too slowly. At the end of the semi-final, Simón saved Italy’s first penalty, taken by Manuel Locatelli, but it wasn’t enough. “With Belotti, I had: ‘Low, right, hard’ which was correct, but I didn’t stop it. I knew he went that side. I dived early and still didn’t get there. I thought: ‘Bloody hell, knowing that, knowing he only looks at the ball, I could have gone sooner.’ That penalty made me so angry.”But when it is suggested that in a shootout, a goalkeeper can’t really lose the response is swift. “Maybe that’s the perception. But if I don’t save a penalty, or just one, I’m annoyed. I’ll think I didn’t study them as I should have, or I didn’t dive with the conviction needed. I’m going home very upset with myself. Very upset.”
Belotti’s penalty lingers still but Spain’s performance at Euro 2020 meant they were back, with Simón and everything he represents at the heart of their revival, error included. Everything had changed but Simón does not have a problem keeping his feet firmly on the ground. “My mates aren’t fazed by it at all, they don’t care, and that helps me leave it all behind. I remember returning after the Euros and the Olympics, back to my village, happy as anything, and they said to me: ‘So, how was your summer?’”