Spain again has to weather a storm before a major tournament

Portugal's Renato Sanches, centre, tries to get past Spain's Pablo Sarabia, left and Sergio Busquets during the international friendly soccer match between Spain and Portugal at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Spain on Friday June 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

MADRID (AP) — For the third straight time, Spain’s preparations for a major soccer tournament have taken a hit just before it is set to start playing.

After having to overcome problems ahead of the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup, “La Roja” enters Euro 2020 having to deal with the scare of a COVID-19 outbreak that could jeopardize its title chances.

Captain Sergio Busquets tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday and has his participation in the tournament in doubt. He is already set to miss the team’s opener against Sweden on June 14 after starting a 10-day period of isolation away from the team’s training camp.

There were fears more infections could be detected, but no one else in the squad tested positive on Monday. Testing was set to continue among players and staff in the coming days, and coach Luis Enrique called up five additional players to begin practicing at the team’s training camp in case they were needed as replacements. The federation said others were expected to be called up later in the week.

The players arriving on Tuesday are Rodrigo Moreno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler, Brais Méndez and Raúl Albiol. The federation said they will not have any contact with the players previously selected for the European tournament.

“Taking into consideration the possible consequences that Busquets’ positive result could bring, the coaching staff has decided to incorporate a group of players to complete training during the next few days under Luis Enrique’s orders within a parallel bubble,” the Spanish federation said.

Spain was yet to announce whether Busquets would be dropped from the squad, but his case was already significantly affecting the team’s preparations because everyone else in close contact with him also had to isolate. Practice sessions had to be altered and personalized training routines were put in place so health safety protocols could be observed, the Spanish soccer federation said.

The team also won’t get to play its final warm-up match scheduled for Tuesday against Lithuania. Spain will use players from the under-21 squad, as well as its coach, for the match in Madrid.

The national team players were not vaccinated against COVID-19, which generated some criticism as Spanish athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics have been.

Busquets started in Spain’s first warm-up match on Friday, a 0-0 draw against Portugal in the Spanish capital. Spain is set to open play in Group E against Sweden, then face Poland on June 19 and Slovakia on June 23. All of its matches will be played in the southern Spanish city of Seville.

Luis Enrique has until Saturday to make changes to the squad in cases of injuries or COVID-19. When he announced his list, the coach said he would probably use under-21 players as replacements if needed. He only selected 24 players instead of the 26 allowed for each national team, saying he didn’t want to call up too many players who would not likely be used at the tournament.

The Spaniards had an even bigger problem to overcome three years ago, when the local soccer federation fired coach Julen Lopetegui two days before the team’s opening World Cup match in Russia after he took a job with Real Madrid without properly advising federation officials.

The firing left Spain’s training camp in chaos, with sporting director Fernando Hierro suddenly taking over as coach. Spain had been among the title favorites at the time, coming off a string of good results under Lopetegui, but it ended up being eliminated by Russia in the round of 16 after winning only one of its three group matches.

The controversy before Euro 2016 also surfaced shortly before the tournament, with starting goalkeeper David de Gea having his name involved in an investigation into a Spanish pornography filmmaker. He immediately denied wrongdoing and eventually was fully cleared.

Then-coach Vicente Del Bosque also couldn’t avoid the subject in news conferences. Spain got through the group stage but was eliminated by Italy, also in the round of 16.

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