Soccer-Spain bow out with heads held high and optimistic for Qatar

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Euro 2020 - Semi Final - Italy v Spain
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By Richard Martin

LONDON (Reuters) - Spain's Euro 2020 campaign began in disarray and ended with the pain of a penalty shootout defeat by Italy in the semi-finals but this was ultimately a story of redemption and renewal that gives them plenty of hope for the future.

Luis Enrique's young side were not the favourites for the tournament or against Italy but they produced a bold and thrilling display in the 1-1 draw at Wembley and dominated extra-time but could not make their superiority count and lost the battle from the spot 4-2.

It was a fitting ending to a tournament where Spain were often unable to convert their chances. However, above all there was a sense of pride after winning over their doubters, having been booed by their own supporters in Seville and heavily criticised by pundits at home and abroad.

"I've seen many positive things, young players who contributed so much. The objective was to form a team and make the fans proud of their players and we did that," said Luis Enrique.

The coach certainly did not begin the campaign with everyone behind him after he left out captain and all-time appearance maker Sergio Ramos while naming no players from Real Madrid in his squad, to the chagrin of many renowned pundits.

Further upheaval came shortly before the tournament when new captain Sergio Busquets plus Diego Llorente tested positive for COVID-19, preventing the squad from doing group training sessions for a week.

Opening draws against Sweden and Poland on a patchy pitch at the atmosphere-sapping La Cartuja stadium provoked furious headlines and their chances were quickly written off.

Luis Enrique staunchly defended his side though, especially inconsistent striker Alvaro Morata, and compared Spain to a bottle of champagne that was about to be uncorked.

They then trounced Slovakia 5-0 and beat Croatia 5-3 in extra time, with Morata scoring a remarkable and crucial goal.

Their quarter-final win on penalties against Switzerland was less inspiring but they saved their best performance for last against Italy, with youngsters such as Dani Olmo and Pedri coming to the fore, even though the match ended in tears.

"With honour" said the front cover of newspaper Marca on Wednesday.

Despite the frustration at coming so close to making the final, the feeling at Wembley could not have been more different to Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium after their elimination to Russia at the 2018 World Cup, which felt like the end of an era.

THE START OF SOMETHING GREAT

"We have to think this can be the start of something great," said defender Eric Garcia.

Garcia is set to lead the defence for many years to come alongside Aymeric Laporte, who switched nationalities from France a month before the tournament began.

"We got this far, we've seen other sides who are stronger than us on paper and fell before us. There were many changes, many new faces but what we've done is spectacular," said Laporte.

Spain are only a third of the way through their campaign to qualify for the 2022 World Cup but already have their sights set on Qatar.

"We showed that this team is ready for the World Cup," said Jordi Alba.

"We'll see what happens in the World Cup as there'll be great sides such as Argentina and Brazil but we'll be fighting and looking to play a big role."

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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