Luis Enrique, the Spain coach, has asked himself whether it might be better not to win Group E and instead finish second to avoid Brazil, which is precisely why his team will not try to engineer an easy route through the World Cup.
The selección are top of the group and victory against Japan on Thursday would guarantee progress as group winners, but they also know a point would see them through to the last 16 and avoid Brazil in the quarter-final
“We have reflected on it,” Luis Enrique said, “but from a professional point of view, imagine that we speculate. ‘OK, we want to be second, that’s in our interests.’ We get to the 95th minute and in both games it’s 0-0, 0-0, [thinking:] ‘Everything’s going great.’ And then Costa Rica go and score and Japan score. And in 15 seconds you’re out because you have been speculating for 90 minutes. Or the other way round: Germany are winning 5-0 and we’re drawing and that will do and then Japan score and you’re out.
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“When you’re a very good team and you want to play seven games, you want to be first. We play the team that’s second in Group F, right? And then in the quarter-final … in theory it’s Brazil. OK, great. We play Brazil then. We can’t count like the milkmaid.”
The milkmaid’s metaphor is an equivalent to counting your chickens, a parable in which the protagonist believes the milk her cow produces will allow her to buy a goat, a horse and a farm until one day she trips and spills all the milk.
Luis Enrique also drew on a real-world parallel, citing summer’s basketball European championshipwhen Croatia deliberately missed a late free throw to finish third in the group rather than second, allowing them to go into what they thought was the easier half of the draw that included Spain, who they wanted to face. They lost their first knockout game to Finland and didn’t even get to face Spain, who went on to win it.
“Elite sport doesn’t let you speculate,” Luis Enrique said. “To win a World Cup, you have to beat everyone, or everyone you face. So that’s what we’re going to try to do.”