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Call me Fabián: midfielder steps out of shadows to be a face of the new Spain

<span><a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/players/3893764/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Fabián Ruiz;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Fabián Ruiz</a> playing for <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/spain/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Spain;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Spain</a> during their 1-0 win against <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/italy-women/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Italy;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Italy</a> in Gelsenkirchen during Euro 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Jose Breton/NurPhoto/Shutterstock</span>

His name is Fabián but you can call him, erm, Fabián. On the night before Spain faced Italy, the first thing the midfielder was asked in the pre-match press conference was how he should be addressed. Which might sound like a stupid question – sitting before them was a man who has commanded £76m in transfer fees and has been in the national team for six years, not some unknown – but it wasn’t, and if anyone was to blame it was Luis de la Fuente. As for not some unknown, that was the point. “If he wasn’t called Fabián,” the coach had insisted, “you would talk about him much more.”

So, what then? Fabinho? Fabiano? Fabianski? Or maybe, like César Azpilicueta, you could just call him Dave. “Fabián,” Fabián said. “That’s my name. I’m proud of my name, and being Spanish.”

It is a familiar lament, a line used a lot and not just by De la Fuente; it is also largely empty, but that doesn’t prevent it becoming a recurring theme. Not so long ago when Andoni Zubizarreta said “if Pedri was called Pedrinho, he would have cost €50m”, it was just another expression of the claim that Spanish players are not sufficiently rated in Spain, a perception that foreign footballers – foreign things, in fact – are celebrated more. An appeal for patriotic pride, the coach has put it at the centre of his discourse. “Our players,” he says, “are the best in the world.”

“Fabián is an exceptional player, world class,” De la Fuente said. “I would love it if people were aware of the football potential in this country and we appreciated and valued that: we have a brilliant generation and great, extraordinary trajectory in football. Fabián is a representation of all those players who have been in the shadows and should get media recognition for everything they are doing.”

Perhaps that’s just him, the man who declared himself “proud to be Spanish, Catholic and taurino [a bullfighting fan]”, and described himself as a defender of the “national product”, a kind of Make Spain Great Again.

“For me, Spain is the best country in the world. We’re the greatest but we have to improve certain things and one of them is to be proud of being Spanish,” De la Fuente said before their opening game. Before their second, he responded to a question about Italy, ever the stylists, by saying: “Armani? We wear El Pulpo. I champion Spanish fashion.”

Perhaps it is just a sense of injustice, of having been ignored, a means of generating support that has not always been felt in a place of clubs over country. Perhaps it’s part of a plan to build players’ confidence, getting a relatively young group, in which only two of their starters against Italy have won the Champions League, to fear no one; a means of convincing a generation which is not that generation that they too can achieve something huge. There may be cohesive value too in creating the idea of an external enemy, fuel in the old prove them wrong narrative.

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“I would just invite people to value what we have in Spain,” Fabián said. “We have lots of good things. And if someone asks about one of our players outside Spain, they would value him. I would invite us to value our own more.”

De la Fuente’s words created a debate into which Fabián now tapped, but it was a strange one: weirdly empty, it felt forced. At times it was baffling, arguing against something that wasn’t really there. Who exactly are these people who don’t, or didn’t, value Spanish players? And what does value even mean? How good do you have to say a player is to be rating him? Do you have to declare Spain favourites, certain champions, to respect them? Not being a name doesn’t mean not being named.

Mostly the old trope about the Spanish not valuing their own – certainly in media terms – just is not true; it also probably misses the point: it’s not really being Spanish that’s the problem, that means being overlooked, it is more not being at Real Madrid or Barcelona.

At the start of the Euros, most didn’t include Spain among the favourites, it is true. France, England and Germany were assumed to be ahead of most, maybe Portugal too, but Spain, were usually included in that next group, which hardly seems a grand affront. Most people in most places would have said the same.

Spain did lack the names, or so it was assumed, yet that hardly seems a grand affront either. This is, it is true, a team of relatively low profile, or it was; footballers not always seen on the biggest stage. How many of their players, people wondered, are genuinely, definitively among the best two or three in the world in their position?

Of the starting XI against Italy, only one plays for Real Madrid – Dani Carvajal – and he’s a right-back, even if surely the best in the world. Only two play for Barcelona. One, Pedri, is a star name, outstanding at the last Euros, winner of the Golden Boy award, but has played fewer than 50% of the games since; this season he started only 16 games in the league, three in Europe. The other, Lamine Yamal, is a 16-year-old. Besides, it absolutely is not the case that he and Nico Williams, the 21-year-old Athletic winger, have been denied media or public attention, lacked hype. They have been projected as the image of this team, new generation. “Two Ferraris against Italy,” ran the headline on the front of Marca – before the game.

The goalkeeper is from Athletic, a team who did not play in Europe. The two centre-backs, Aymeric Laporte and Robin Le Normand, both France-born, play at Real Sociedad and in Saudi Arabia respectively. Neither has the media backing that Nacho Fernández, who started the first game, gets. Left-back Marc Cucurella was not guaranteed to go at all. Fabián played only three of Spain’s qualifiers: most had anticipated Mikel Merino playing ahead of him. Álvaro Morata had the best season of his life, until halfway, when he had his worst: of 21 goals, only two came after January.

And then there’s Rodri, the footballer who does it all, the one player everyone agreed was the best in the world in his position. “All he lacks is marketing, social media, that kind of thing,” Morata insisted; “he could easily have won the Ballon d’Or last year.”

To which Rodri replied: “Well, maybe, but I don’t play football for that. I’m very sorry. Maybe you’d like me to be more marketable … Álvaro does sometimes say: ‘Bloody hell, mate, you have to do this and that …’ But I just don’t understand football in those terms. I know how things work, so I don’t get frustrated in those kind of situations. It’s not something that moves me; what I chase are teams awards. If we win the Euros, I wouldn’t care about the Ballon d’Or, quite honestly.”

Now that doesn’t feel so far off, the excitement building. Germany, France, England … Spain? They have outperformed them all so far. If the doubts were logical enough before, they’re being swept away now. Where De la Fuente saw emptiness, now there are eulogies. “That’s not dangerous because I know what they’re made of,” he insisted. Some counsel caution, of course – not least as Germany may await in the quarter-final – but, the editorial in Marca insisted, “it is impossible not to see us as favourites now”. Its front page ran on: “Spain can dream big.”

“Spain is a party,” “Spain is pure art,” said the headlines in AS the morning after the destruction of Italy. “47 million Spaniards are starting to climb on board this ship that was half empty two weeks ago,” it read. The following day, its cover showed Lamine and Nico, “the envy of Europe”.

They are still younger than Jesús Navas, put together. The front page of El Mundo Deportivo put them alongside Cucurella. It carried a single word: “Superstars.” Gianluigi Donnarumma said: “Fabián is my teammate at PSG, almost a brother; he’s a phenomenon.” Just Fabián. And Rodri. And Nico. And Lamine. And Marc. And the rest.

Which is the way it should be: a tournament is supposed to bring revelation, confirmation, become the moment when a footballer moves on to a higher plane – and, yes, maybe a higher club. When he is watched, the best version of himself. Value shown, value known. “There is no one better than us,” De la Fuente said, and everyone agrees now.