Rodrigo Hernández is fine, thanks. Sometimes the most basic question is the most important, and this feels like another of those times. It’s a short while since the army rolled into Spain’s Las Rozas training base and, hours before the European Championship got under way, administered the national team with a coronavirus vaccine he calls “indispensable”. It’s sunny, he’s smiling, and so far the Manchester City midfielder feels good. So do his teammates. Which, after the week they have had, is something.
It’s also a bit late. “Yeah, but we keep out of that really and at last it’s happened,” Rodri says, sitting in the shade, 25km north-west of Madrid and barely 10 minutes from where he grew up, preparing for his first international tournament.
“They vaccinated us an hour ago and I’m fine. I hadn’t had a jab before, so it’s the [Janssen vaccine]. And personally, I’m good. No symptoms or side-effects. It’s good news that they’ve given us all the vaccine at last and we can get that bit of tranquillity; we can all be calmer now.”
They need it. These have been difficult days since Sergio Busquets tested positive for Covid-19 last Sunday and Diego Llorente followed that two days later, both players departing by ambulance while Las Rozas went into lockdown, a threat hanging over those who had been left behind, isolated. “For the last few days, every morning when the PCRs are done, there’s been this idea going round your head: ‘Please, please don’t let there be a positive,’” Rodri says. “It would be very cruel.
“There’s a fear, not so much for our health, as we’re young and it seems unlikely that anything serious could happen to us, but that you could miss the Euros. Busi caught it, he doesn’t feel anything [symptoms] at all but you know that could mean missing out. It happened to Diego, although fortunately it was a false positive and he can come back but that idea leaves you with a really bad feeling, a sadness. The situation is what it is, though; we know it’s the age we’re living in. And luckily it now seems like we’re moving forward.”
Getting the vaccine doesn’t means it’s over, and there could yet be side-effects. Nor even does the return of Llorente, walking back in on Saturday, but it was a significant step – in symbolic and sporting terms. So, too, was a fifth consecutive day of negative PCRs, that fear mercifully unrealised. And the departure of Spain’s parallel, reserve squad on Saturday: they will no longer be needed.
Of the initial 24 men called up, all except Busquets will be available to face Sweden on Monday; he will not be back until Wednesday at the earliest. His is the position Rodri will occupy, the position Rodri always appeared destined to occupy, almost as if it was impossible to mention him without mentioning the Barcelona midfielder. Which is probably why, although he admits “we’re similar in our games” and says “I always try to learn from Busquets”, the City midfielder insists: “I am Rodrigo Hernández, I have always been Rodrigo Hernández.” And now he is fundamental to Spain’s hopes, responsibility his.
At Las Rozas restrictions remain tight, time has been lost, training possible only in small groups, and things still aren’t exactly normal. The City defender sits on a chair under a mini-marquee on a training pitch by the residency, a barrier before him, distance maintained. But it is getting better. Even being here is a step, Seville closer now – although they get there having had only one full group session together in more than a week.
“These last few days we haven’t been able to work the way that we would like,” Rodri admits. “We’ve been doing individual training, more physical. That’s useful in terms of fitness, but we haven’t had the collective preparation you need: sessions where there’s ball work, passes, possession, mini-games, combinations. We haven’t done much with the ball, which is what really makes things function.”
Nor is it just on the pitch. “In the residency, the common spaces have been closed,” he explains. “We got rid of any type of contact. Meals have been organised so that everything is done separately, the tables are apart, we eat in shifts. It’s all done individually, everything we do. Everyone’s in their own rooms.”
It’s easy to picture it like a prison, inmates talking to each other along the pipes. Rodri laughs. “Once in a while you hear conversations or you can hear that the guy next door is playing on the PlayStation. Before all this happened, we would meet in the common areas and play cards, it was all more enjoyable, much nicer. We spent more time together; there was more of a sense of team. Now you’re in your room alone, long hours, but hopefully this will be over soon and we can meet up again.”
That’s not all bad. Two days after Spain’s opening game, Rodri has to defend his final university thesis, a viva that is the last hurdle to complete a business degree at Castellón University. “So that time’s been some use,” he concedes, smiling. “It’s all online now, fortunately. So I’ve been preparing for that, and still will. I imagine the others will be watching series, on the console, anything.
“It does end up feeling like a long time. It’s a price to pay, but we don’t mind if that’s what it takes to ensure there are no more [Covid] positives. And if there are no late setbacks we’ll soon get back to normal, begin the Euros, which is what we all want.”
Could it be a strange Euros with a strange outcome? “A bit like the season itself,” Rodri says. “With City, we had to adapt things. It’s been a very, very demanding year in terms of games, the volume of matches, the physical needs. Whoever adapts the best will have the best chance at the Euros too. I think there will be different results, unusual ones. That would make sense, given everything: the preparation hasn’t been what it would usually be, the context isn’t the same, the stadiums aren’t full. I think we’ll see a very close competition.”
It is a competition where no club has more players than Manchester City, four of whom are in the Spain team: Aymeric Laporte, Eric García, Ferrán Torres and Rodri. By contrast there are none from Real Madrid, a sign of shifting times. And a source of some pretty dramatic, overblown criticism too, an expression of an obsession and a sometimes damaging divide, of the primacy of the clubs. And players aren’t impervious to that.
“I remember a time when 80%, 90% of the national team were Madrid or Barcelona players and everyone was happy. Now there are none [from Madrid]. You have to respect whoever the manager calls. The fact that some play here and some play there just doesn’t matter. This is Spain. This isn’t a club. This is the selección and here we take off our club shirts.”
Only it does matter, Rodri admits; it can be a good thing, that City core helping Spain. “The understanding with teammates is better if you have been better all year,” he explains. “You’re used to working in a certain way, all the more so if they’re positions that are close together: the centre-back with the pivot, the inside midfielders too. That creates associations that are beneficial. But we’ve all worked together with Spain for a year so we all understand each other anyway.”
It’s not just Spain; City have four players with England, too. How good can they be? “Hombre, for me England are one of the clear favourites,” Rodri says. “They could name three teams if they wanted to. Look at the individual players and their level is very, very high. We have to see if collectively they are a great team but I’m convinced they’re [among the] favourites if only because of the names going.”
Now at last, vaccine delivered, he can be fairly sure that he and his Spain teammates are going too. On Monday, they’ll be there. And then how will Rodrigo Hernández feel? “Relieved, I think. On one hand, relief. On the other, tension. And excitement, too. There will be all sorts of emotions coming together, I’m sure.”