Sergio Busquets' voice cracked a little as he was invited to explain what a breakthrough Spain's 5-0 victory over Slovakia had been. The captain was perspiring under a warm Seville sun, and his team were through to the next round of European championship, where they meet Croatia.
Progress had been in doubt. Most of all, Busquets had not taken part until the third match. He tested positive for coronavirus in the week before the tournament, which meant immediate self-isolation and the daily suspense over when further testing would clear him to rejoin the squad.
It had been an emotionally fraught time, Busquets acknowledged after he had at last taken the field and commanded the sort of performance Spain had been desperately longing for.
Busquets tends to keep his emotions under rigid guard. He is a footballer admired for his discreet authority, his toughness. But his experiences over the last month have carried him through sudden highs and lows.
There were the tribulations that afflicted all senior Barcelona players after an end-of-season that fell into disappointment, the chase for a league title fading on the penultimate weekend, followed by much talk that rejuvenation was needed.
For Busquets, who has spent entire career at Barcelona, and is 32, those are ominous noises. He feels the club’s decline. His career as a first-team player began with a treble in his debut season, 2008-09, a double two years later, and another Champions League-Liga-Copa del Rey treble before he had turned 27. Standards have sunk in the six years since.
Then there was his surprise promotion to the captaincy of Spain, the armband passing to Busquets when Sergio Ramos, of Real Madrid, was surprisingly left out of the 24-man party chosen by head coach Luis Enrique.
Busquets, the last remaining link to Spain’s 2010 World Cup triumph, assumed the role of skipper. Then the virus took it away, the skipper whisked away from the training camp in an ambulance to see out his quarantine at home alone.
He felt responsible for the compromises his teammates in a relatively inexperienced Spain squad had to make after his positive test, with training schedules and drills altered to ensure there was less collective contact.
When Spain only drew their matches against Sweden 0-0 and Poland 1-1, the crowd in Seville began to agitate. Busquets, cleared to return against Slovakia, was thrust into a sort of emergency-rescue style of leadership, a firefighter skipper.
“He played an incredible match,” purred Luis Enrique after the 5-0 win, citing Busquets as the principle booster Spain needed, albeit against a lacklustre Slovakia team. “He gave a textbook example of how a central midfielder should play, in an attacking sense and a defensive sense. But we know what he is about, just sometimes it gets taken for granted.”
Busquets has been praised all his career for his tidiness, the anchor in great midfields for Barcelona and Spain, the touchstone for the greater elegance of, say, Xavi and Iniesta. He has his limitations, but he can also be underestimated as an attacking force, for the imagination of some of his passing.
This evening in Copenhagen, he directly faces his most enduring high-class opponent. Busquets versus Luka Modric, the Croatia captain, is a contest that has been played out 22 times in the most famous club fixture in the game, Barcelona versus Real Madrid.
Both players are relied on to set the metronome for some epic midfield battles, both aware that in recent years, their clubs have been obliged to look ahead to a time when the respective teams are not built around them.
Modric is 35, the most successful Croatia skipper in history, having guided the country to second place at the last World Cup. He has been crucial at this European championship.
An hour into their final group match, in Glasgow, against Scotland, Croatia stood where Spain did when Busquets belatedly arrived in the tournament: they had two points, and qualification for the last 16 stage was in genuine jeopardy.
Cue Modric, captain, inspiration and saviour, with a wonderful long-range goal, struck with the outside of his right boot. It was a trademark tic that once drew criticism from a coach – Rafa Benitez, at Madrid, asked that he use his instep more – but one that gave his country a lead that they would extend to 3-1 by the final whistle. Like Busquets, Modric had been the catalyst for his side to take real momentum into the knockout stage.
Like Spain, Croatia have now been set back by Covid-19, a positive test depriving them of Ivan Perisic. It is a significant loss of a dynamic, goalscoring, experienced leader. All the more responsibility then for the skipper.