France and Spain have spent much of the last 20 years trading places at the top of the international hierarchy. A few of the key men involved in Sunday’s Uefa Nations League final have recently traded accusations and affiliations across the border.
Take Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte, who will this evening take leadership of a defence that must cope with the speed of Kylian Mbappe, the guile of Karim Benzema and the intelligent industry of Antoine Griezmann. Barely six months ago, Laporte was still an aspiring France international, who captained Les Bleus at every age-group level from under-17s to under-21s.
Then he received the persuasive phone calls that he had been missing in his life. They were coming from Luis Enrique, manager of Spain, where Laporte spent much of his developing career playing at Athletic Bilbao. He was eligible for La Roja, it was confirmed to him, and if he chose to take up his Spanish passport, he had a place ready for him in the senior red jersey.
Laporte said ‘Si!’, and made public a perceived slight that had been preying on his mind. He had messaged Didier Deschamps, the manager of France earlier in the season and says he had no reply.
Deschamps had previously called up Laporte to senior French squads without him actually playing and the sudden silence felt uncomfortable. “Maybe he had changed his number,” Laporte shrugged, “but I used the one I had spoken with him on before.”
Laporte committed to Spain in May, and promptly played every minute of Euro 2020, in which he and his adopted nation reached the semi-final, losing on penalties to Italy. Laporte ended up having delivered more passes for a team that specialise in accurate passing than any other Spaniard at the tournament.
France? They went home earlier, at the last 16 stage, Deschamps having made no secret of his irritation at Laporte for accusing him of rude indifference. “It’s a lie,” he said of the story of the unanswered message.
What is known of Deschamps is that when a big call needs to be made, he will pick up the phone. He ended a six-year, bitter row with Benzema in March by recalling the striker from his long Bleus exile, with France in need of the brilliance Benzema has given to Real Madrid for the last dozen years.
Like Benzema, Griezmann has spent his peak years in Spain’s La Liga, so there is no lack of familiarity with the threat that a worldly France pose to a Spanish team who short on experience in key positions.
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In Milan on Sunday, Laporte, 27 but with only 11 caps, will be partnered in central defence by Pau Torres, owner of only 15 caps, the pair of them in front of goalkeeper Unai Simon — 17 caps — and behind a midfield likely to include Barcelona’s 17-year-old Gavi, who has played just 275 minutes of senior league football in his life. Gavi won his first Spain cap in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Italy in the Nations League semi-final.
It has been an exhilarating mini-tournament for newcomers. Gavi and teenage substitute Yeremy Pino shone for Spain as they brought to an end Italy’s 37-match unbeaten run. France had a freshman as their hero in their comeback from 2-0 down to Belgium in Thursday’s semi-final. Theo Hernandez scored France’s third, winning goal in the 90th minute of his second senior cap.
Celebrating with him was his older brother Lucas, who like Theo grew up in Spain and in the Atletico Madrid youth system. They were born in Marseille but have called Madrid their hometown almost all their lives.
Both could have played for Spain. As recently as early 2018, Lucas Hernandez said publicly he would do so happily. That March, Deschamps called him. By July Lucas Hernandez was lifting the World Cup with France, and a year later joining Bayern Munich for €80 million.
Part of the temptation for his younger brother, 24-year-old Theo, to represent Spain rather than France was that Lucas was soon busy making the left-back position for Les Bleus his own. Theo, now of AC Milan, also plays there.
But last week, Deschamps found a way to have the siblings lining up in competitive game together for the first time in their careers, Lucas in a back three, Theo wider, as wing-back. In the 90th minute against Belgium it looked like a tactical masterstroke.