No one had a better view of Spain’s greatest World Cup victory than Carlos Soler, from inside and out. Many, many words have been used to describe their 7-0 destruction of Costa Rica, a performance so perfect as to be almost inconceivable, leading the covers of the country’s four sports dailies to run with “brutal”, “dream”, “olé” and “a clockwork red”. But maybe the one that expresses it best is not a word at all. “Pffff,” the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder offers.
It’s the morning after the night before and on the television at Spain’s training camp the goals are playing on a loop. It’s a long loop. Soler sits here, a smile taking over his face; 17 hours earlier, he was pitchside at Al Thumama Stadium, watching the first half. “And the first half … pffff,” he says, which says it all. “On the bench, I enjoyed it.”
Out there, even more. Desperate to get involved in something this good, to make it even better, he was introduced on 56 minutes and scored the sixth on 89.12, an expression of the selección’s relentlessness. There was still time for a seventh.
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Soler dedicated the goal to his girlfriend, Marta, and to José Luis Gayà, the full-back forced to leave the Spain camp just before it all began. He had been keen to make Gayà part, in some way, of something special. Which was nice; messing up match reports was not so nice and he bursts out laughing when he’s told what he had done. Sorry, not sorry. He had seen it coming from the start, if not quite like this.
“I was relaxed, convinced that things would go well because I could see the way we trained. We wanted a start like that – strong, intense, with pace on the ball, goals, getting it back fast – but it was even better than we could have wished for,” he says. “Opponents hate that. I’ve had to play against teams that dominate occasionally and when you finally get the ball and they take it back off you again straight away, you feel impotence. You end up running for the sake of running and that tires you so much; 3-0 and it’s only half-time.”
Not that Spain showed any mercy or backed off. As for Soler, he just wanted on. “At half-time the fitness coach told me to warm up and when the manager tells you that it’s because you’re going on soon,” he says. “He told us we can’t relax because a single goal could mean going out, finishing first or second. It can be very important. But above all, we had to keep the same style, not relax.
“And those of us who came on, even with the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, we wanted more. It was a very, very good win. We got to the dressing room and celebrated, enjoyed it for a few hours. But today it’s gone.”
Not entirely. There’s the confidence Soler says it gives them, reinforcing their commitment to an idea. There’s also an opportunity. Win their next game and not only will Spain go through but, unless Costa Rica beat Japan, Germany will go out. That, he admits, is significant. “It’s not that we have two bullets. We have one. If we win we’re through. We can’t wait for the second one. And Germany are a strong team so if we have the opportunity to knock them out, we have to try to take it. Nothing against them, but to knock out a [competitor] and carry on yourself could be important.”
Soler has been impressed by France, England and Saudi Arabia – “that offside line doesn’t just happen; those mechanisms are worked on” – but did not see Germany’s game live. Nor is he taking anything for granted, aware that they dominated initially, and he is also impressed by Hajime Moriyasu’s team, on and off the pitch.
“Japan are very intense, they never stop working, they’re very disciplined,” he says. “This may not seem very relevant, but I saw a photo of their dressing room after the game and they leave it all tidy.” Do you do the same? “We try,” Soler says with a smile. “Maybe not quite as well as them. You may think that’s not relevant, but I think it is: it’s an expression of discipline, taken on to the pitch. What you have to do, you do.
“Now we have Germany but we won’t be over-confident. Zero. They have players who can mess it up for you in a second.”
For Soler, there is extra satisfaction. He had not been sure of making the World Cup after a difficult start at PSG. Now, here he is the morning after Spain’s best result in the competition, a goalscorer too. “I always trusted in myself. I always thought I had the level to play at PSG and to make it to the World Cup.
“I signed the last day of the market, there was a new coach working on ideas without me. Logically the coach wants those players who are most prepared, who know the system.”
After one game, Kylian Mbappé even appeared to criticise Soler when he used the Spaniard’s name as an example of the team not being at its strongest after a 2-1 win over Juventus. “Carlos is was not used to playing. He’s different to Neymar. We did what we could,” he said.
Soler says: “I read that in the press: it didn’t affect me. I didn’t see what the controversy was. He didn’t have to come and apologise or anything because I don’t want any apology. From the outside it might have seemed [bigger] or maybe it was exaggerated, but he said something that was true. Maybe I lacked a bit of the team mechanics and that connection with them. I wasn’t playing much then. But the last month and a half I started five times, scored goals.”
Besides, Luis Enrique doesn’t see call-ups as a reward for club form, but as a way of constructing a team, where what counts most is what you do with him, not what you do elsewhere. “I first got called up for the bubble [parallel] squad at the Euros, in case anyone got Covid,” Soler says. “He saw things in me that he thought could help and started calling me from there. Every time I come, I try to hold the positions he gives me, do what he asks. He is very focused on respecting the style.
“There’s a great atmosphere. Luis Enrique is very natural. He tells it the way he sees it and defends his beliefs to the death. We’re with him and he’s with us. And it’s like any job. If your colleague is a friend not an enemy, it’s different, there’s trust. I was thinking this the other day. If this guy goes off, another one comes on and does as well. And yesterday was the proof of that. There’s a very high level. We’re a very good team.”