Aspas playing with courage and heart

  • Iago Aspas made his World Cup debut at Russia 2018
  • The Spain striker scored a wonder goal on his Roja debut at Wembley
  • He’s a veritable idol at his club Celta Vigo

There can be few players in Spain’s La Liga as important to their sides as Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas. Small wonder then that his club struggled so badly during his recent absence with injury. During that three-month spell, Celta lost ten of their 12 fixtures and plummeted into the relegation zone. This for a team that only two years ago came within touching distance of the UEFA Europa League final.

“From the outside, it’s even more frustrating as you cannot help your team,” the striker acknowledged during his interview with FIFA.com. “But you just have to stay calm. A win for your team can change your outlook, so all you can do is look ahead to the next fixture. We’re a young squad and so our lack of experience contributed, which is why we need to stay very united to come out on top.”

What transpired after his injury was a goalscoring, tearful, return. Back in the team for the first of a series of virtual finals that will decide the club’s top-flight status, Aspas and Co found themselves 2-0 down to fellow strugglers Villarreal. Aspas began the comeback with a wonderful curling free-kick before sealing victory from the penalty spot late on. It was an epic script for the returning hero, who broke down in tears after an ovation from the fans.

Celta’s motto is afouteza e corazón (courage and heart). Afouteza is defined in Galician as “the disposition of one who acts fearlessly in the face of adversity”, and it sums up Aspas to perfection.

Indeed, he displayed this courage on his national team debut against England at no less a venue than Wembley Stadium, where his wonder goal launched La Roja’s comeback in a 2-2 draw. It was also in evidence at his first FIFA World Cup™ last year in Russia, when he came off the bench in Spain’s final group game to score a back-heeled goal with his weaker right foot. That last-minute strike would earn his side a 2-2 draw with Morocco and a place in the Round of 16. Nor did he lack courage when penalty takers were called for in the next game, even if his shoot-out miss sealed Russia’s passage to the quarter-finals.

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“I’ve replayed that penalty many times since then,” the player said with an air of resignation. “I wanted to take the kick and you have to make a lot of split-second decisions. I chose to hit it where I did, and the keeper stopped it. You have no choice but to keep on going. At times like that you need the support of your friends and your family to continue.”

Aspas, in brief

  • 31 years old, left-footed striker
  • Idols: Ronaldo [Luis Nazario de Lima] and Aleksandr Mostovoi
  • He’s been on Celta’s books since the age of nine. In the intervening years, he has only spent two seasons away from the club: 2013/14 (Liverpool) and 2014/15 (Sevilla, where he won the Europa League)
  • Earliest World Cup memory: “USA 1994, Luis Enrique getting elbowed, Roberto Baggio’s fateful penalty, Ronaldo’s first World Cup…”
  • Best partnership: “With Fabian Orellana and Nolito. The year I returned to Celta (2015) we formed a great front three and helped qualify the club for the Europa League.”
  • His hobby: cars

Aspas suffered another setback with his exclusion from Luis Enrique’s first squad when he was handed the Spain job after Russia 2018. The Celta veteran knows that it is hard for a striker from a modest side to force his way into the national team set-up, although he has made a strong case for himself by being the top-scoring Spaniard in La Liga for the last two seasons. He still hopes he can compete for this distinction again this term.

With Diego Costa on paternity leave last September, Aspas was given another chance with La Roja and needed just one training session for Enrique to name him in his starting XI for the next game. “I just trained and played like I’d been doing with Celta,” recalled Aspas. “After the match, the boss told me to keep on working to continue getting opportunities.”

Question of style

Having failed to qualify for the final phase of the UEFA Nations League, Spain kicked off their UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying campaign with wholesale squad changes and some uncertainty about the team’s playing style.

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“We’re in a period of transition, as the coach himself said when he arrived. Some great players with enormous experience have gone and younger players are coming in. That said, it’s a great group,” the striker insisted.

As a voracious consumer of football and an open admirer of Pep Guardiola, we asked the Galician for his take on the national team’s style and whether it should persist with its famed passing game or ring the changes.

“In part, I think we need to forget the tiki-taka, which belongs to another generation, and redefine our style. What the boss is looking to do is to maintain the possession game we all know and combine it with a more direct type of football and new concepts he is introducing, tailored to the players he brings in,” said Aspas.

After Spain’s elimination from Russia 2018, the forward remained engrossed by the tournament, saying: “I really like how Belgium played with three central defenders and wing backs, and Croatia, who no-one saw as favourites but step by step made their way to the final. In recent years, you see more and more teams with five in defence, but at this World Cup we started to see a change in playing styles, with more games decided by penalties and set pieces.”

In June it will be ten years since the player first ran out at Balaidos, his beloved stadium, for what was, by his admission, the most special game of his life. Back then, as now, Celta were fighting to avoid relegation and with three games to go came up against another candidate for the drop in Alaves. One hour in with the game still scoreless, the coach looked to his bench and decided to take a chance on academy graduate Aspas. Then, as now, he netted a brace to secure a desperate win for his side. In 2009, it was enough to save Celta. Could it possibly happen again?

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