It only took a moment for Pedri’s back pass to get past Simón’s foot and enter the net, 44 yards the longest own goal in a major tournament. It was so quick, so unexpected, so downright silly that some Spanish players hadn’t even seen it, their eyes, like those of the keeper, already on the next shot. But they had heard and felt it too. Now they were determined that this was just a moment, not their fate. As Simón and De Gea rushed down the tunnel to the locker room, teammates and staff waited for them.
“We are all with Unai,” insisted captain Sergio Busquets. Which was pretty easy to say after the match assured victory and full redemption, but they also demonstrated it during the match. After the goal, Croatia felt the blood, seizing the opportunity to end it, to push Simón and his teammates to the limit. Luis Enrique later admitted that Spain had gone “into a state of shock”. Standing there alone in the sun, Simón was particularly exposed, so they did what they could to see him through.
When it came to clearing a through pass shortly after, the Spanish coach leapt up and cheered as if a goal had been scored or an incredible save, which it didn’t. Not yet. When the equalizer was scored by Pablo Sarabia there was a run to the corner, but there was also a turn for the keeper, the moment shared with him his relief was theirs too. “How do you support someone in a situation like this?” Said Luis Rubiales, president of the
Spanish Football Federation. “Well, just like they did.”
“Unai has a very strong mentality: he is ambitious but also calm,” said Busquets. “The important thing is to get up because things are happening in football. After something like what happened to Unai, it’s even more important.
Unai Simón watches the ball go into Spain’s net after conceding the ridiculous own-side goal that gave Croatia an early lead in the round of 16. Photograph: Hannah McKay / EPA
At this point, we could have forgiven Simón for wanting to throw in the towel. At the end of a wild night, he pulled on his shirt, a lucky fan bringing home a memento from a game they would never forget, proof of the miracle they had witnessed. And when the keeper finally left, they were waiting for him again. This time to celebrate.
“It’s unusual to have a second chance like this,” said Luis Enrique. He was talking about everyone. Specifically, he was talking about Spain’s reaction to losing a 3-1 lead in five minutes, the kind of trauma that can end a tournament and a team. Yet that certainly applied to Simón, with Álvaro Morata perhaps the most surprising of all those redemption stories. Notably because Simón allowed them to reach this second chance by preventing the Croatian return from ending with an astonishing save at the start of extra time and at 3-3. “It was decisive,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said later.
Simón had also played a role in the second goal, providing the first pass for a move that ended with César Azpilicueta arriving to score. To project this as any kind of assistance would be a huge exaggeration of course, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial either. Because recovery, bravery, is not expressed only in stops, it is revealed by a refusal to give in to this fear. In the determination to do the right thing, to stick to the principles of the game – even if that principle is part of what got you into this big mess in the first place. Under Luis Enrique this means that the keeper is playing, not just passing by starting him, continuing to take risks in the belief that this will bring rewards.
Simón made an astonishing save to fend off Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric (No 9) at the start of extra time with a score of 3-3. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel / EPA
As Simón insisted in an enthralling interview after Spain’s draw against Sweden at the start of the European Championship, “the keeper is not there just to save him, at least with Luis Enrique”. This is part of the reason why, despite all the debates that surrounded the Spanish goalkeepers before this tournament, despite all the doubts that there had been about Simón after a difficult season for Athletic Bilbao during which errors crept in and uncertainty also seemed the coach stayed with him.
“You have to find the free man, who is often me, and if the opponents come to press me, it means that there is someone else without a mark,” Simón told Ladislao Moñino in El País. “It may seem risky, but it is studied and worked. Are you afraid of having the ball? You shouldn’t be because that’s how we play. If things go wrong sometimes, no problem because you have to take risks. Luis Enrique showed it to me and the team. “
There is always a way, a hope for the unexpected, and Simon knows it. A striker turned keeper because, in his own words, he was “very tall and very lazy”, because he liked to throw himself in the mud of the Basque Country, it was only three years since he made his debut in senior – and it happened even sooner than he might have expected.
In the summer of 2018, Simón had just turned 21 and was the club’s fourth-choice goalkeeper, on loan at Elche in the second division. But then things started to happen. Kepa Arrizabalaga left for Chelsea, substitute goalkeeper Iago Herrerín was injured and third choice Álex Remiro was behind on a new contract. Suspecting Remiro would walk away – which he did later, joining rivals Real Sociedad – Athletic decided he couldn’t start the season. Barely 20 days after starting his loan at Elche, Simón was called back.
Five days later, a series of circumstances took him from fourth choice to first and suddenly left him there in San Mamés, the pitch they call the cathedral and a place where they take the goalkeeper seriously. . The place where legendary José Ángel Iribar, dressed in black and considered the best in Spanish history, played for 18 years. Mentor, wise, he always said to Unai Simón: “Don’t worry, this happens to all of us.
It’s not like that, but there was a second chance – and, when Andrej Kramaric came close, a stunning save to keep Spain in the game. “Unai taught a lesson, not only to his teammates but to any child,” said Luis Enrique. “Don’t worry about what you have done wrong and what you have done right; worry about what you are trying. Today he came back from a mistake – a clear mistake we can’t hide – gave us an extra man with the ball, believed in him again, made spectacular saves and showed the personality that we knew he had, bringing strength to himself but to any kid who wants to be a professional footballer.