Aymeric Laporte is having a terrible World Cup, but he doesn’t care. He also has a convenient excuse, or so he claims: there is someone else to blame. At the Spain camp, where the players set off for training pitch No 3 by scooter each morning, they have organised a predictions league for the tournament. On the eve of the selección’s third game – and, no, no one went for 7-0 against Costa Rica – leading the way is Fernando Giner, the team delegate. Top of the players is Gavi. The Manchester City defender is down at the bottom.
“Not great,” he says, then quick as a flash he adds: “But the thing is, I’m not doing it myself. Someone’s doing it for me.” Who? “I can’t say.” Laporte cracks up. Betting is not really his thing, he says, and nor it turns out is football. He loves playing, but this is different. In the TV room, five or six players gather for every game; he isn’t often one of them. “I’m not a football addict. Honestly, I don’t like watching matches,” he admits. He’s seen enough, though, to know one thing: there isn’t a team better than Spain.
At the start of the tournament, before anyone had played, Laporte was asked why Spain would win the World Cup. His response was three words long: “And why not?” Two weeks and one day since the national team touched down in Doha, 34 games into the competition, including the night they scored seven and the 1-1 draw with Germany, has he come up with any reasons why not yet? This time, perched on a stool in a side room at the training base, the response is even shorter: “Nope.”
There is a short pause, a smile, and he adds: “Reasons why [we will].” And they are? “They’re there for everyone to see. Our play is an example for lots of national teams. We play very well, we have spectacular footballers, we move the ball. Against Germany, one of the best teams in the world, we showed we can play. The ability to manage the ball, to dominate possession, to find passing lines. Frankly, I think we have been very good.”
Have you seen anyone better? “In terms of play: sincerely, no. Individually, there are lots of teams with really great players but in terms of the football, the play, very few [like us].”
The Germany game reinforced that even if it also left a feeling of missed opportunity. Qualification could have been all but secured and a potential contender left close to elimination; instead, Spain may still need something from their final game against Japan to progress and Germany could go through with them. “We feel like we dropped two points along the way,” Laporte concedes. “But to be 1-0 up in the 83rd minute against Germany you have to do a lot of good things, especially when they had more need than us. We’re a bit frustrated but happy.
“We lost a stupid ball, there’s a rebound, they get it, and … football is small details and letting in that goal was a small detail. Small things decide games, here, there or anywhere; especially when it’s even like with Germany. I don’t know if it’s a moment’s inattention or good fortune for them, but that was the difference.”
If that opportunity was lost, others present themselves. After the game, Antonio Rüdiger sneaked up to his clubmate Dani Carvajal and whispered in his ear, asking him to ensure Spain beat Japan. Much has been made of the possibility that they could choose not to as a way of pushing Germany towards the exit, and there have even been suggestions Spain would be better off engineering a second place to avoid Brazil.
Too much, Laporte insists. It doesn’t even make sense, Spain are not in a position to run risks. “Nothing’s clear: no one has anything assured,” he says. As for the pathway, he insists: “I haven’t even looked.” He grins but it’s believable. “I haven’t looked, haven’t done the predictions, haven’t done anything.” Do you even know which group yours crosses with? Spoiler: it’s F. “No idea.” You could tell him anything. England next. Laporte laughs. “Honestly, when I play for City, I don’t even know what time kick-off is. My family call and say: hey, what time tomorrow? ‘I don’t know.’”
Have you ever been late, then? The punchline, unlike him, is delivered with perfect timing. “Yes, yesterday.”
Laporte continues: “We had the Japan team talk this morning and what we’re going to try to do is win, like we always do. We didn’t come here to speculate, we came to win. We want to show we’re the same national team as ever.”
It is a national team that perhaps more than any other has a clearly defined identity, built throughout the system. Of the squad, only three players have not been youth internationals for Spain. Two are the substitute goalkeepers, the other is Laporte, who initially played for France, the country of his birth. It is, though, a style he believes in and there are obvious parallels with his club. Which is not to say Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola are the same.
“They are very different, despite having the same idea of keeping the ball,” Laporte says. “Both want the ball to manage the game but it’s true that with Guardiola you try to unbalance your opponents a bit more, taking even more risks than here. Here maybe they are risks that are more necessary. With Spain, it’s exactly the same ambition, same principles, same idea now as we’ve followed from the first moment I joined.”
Alongside him is another City player, although that too is different. Rodri Hernández has played at centre-back for City but as a solution in place of Laporte; they have never played together at club level. Here, they have been partners for the opening two games. It’s going well, too.
“Rodri’s intelligent, he knows how to adapt,” Laporte says. “It’s different for him. He seeks advice, asks a lot of questions; it’s all very natural. We’ve only let in one and we hope there aren’t any more. Basically, I answer the questions he asks. Do I step out? When do we drop? Do I have to go with the striker when he runs into the space? Do I hold? Do I follow? Do I step out with the ball? He asks lots of questions: being firm, decision-making, with the ball, without it. And I try to help as best I can.”
We’ve had a false 9, could this be the start of a false 4? Actually, there’s a thought: does the word “false” annoy you? “Not me,” Laporte grins. “I don’t play as a false anything.”
Other things do annoy him, though. He has reflected on the world he inhabits before. And in fact, some of the reaction, the way his words were interpreted, pretty much proved him right. “I love playing football, really love it, but it’s everything that goes around it,” he says. Asked what is it he doesn’t like, there’s a pause.
Oh. Is it us? “That too,” he says, smiling. “It’s a bit of everything. I don’t know. I’ve always played football because I’ve always loved it; it’s my passion. But what matters on the pitch isn’t always reflected away from football. And that could annoy me. It doesn’t reach the point where it annoys me because I don’t even look, I don’t read. The less I watch the better.”
As a kid Laporte watched football, collected stickers, the whole thing, he says. So when did the disenchantment start? Another punchline, perfectly delivered. “When I started playing, basically,” he says, and cracks up again.
“There’s so much talk, so many opinions. An example: after a game, one says: ‘He was terrible.’ Another says: ‘He was the best.’ It doesn’t bother me because I don’t even see it. What annoys footballers isn’t direct criticism; we’re used to it. It’s the family, the friends. So many people who haven’t played talk and they’re more influential than the players themselves. And you see [former] footballers who say things that if other players had done it [about them] they would get annoyed. Lots of people getting involved, talking, you know?”
Laporte would rather just play football. Or other sports. He dashes off, not to the TV room but in the direction of the pool. The table tennis table awaits too. “Right-handed,” the left-footer says. Asked whether he is one of the better players, the yes and the glint in his eye suggest he might be very good. “Si, si” he says again, grinning. But didn’t Luis Enrique say Pedri was the best? “Because he hasn’t seen me play,” Laporte shoots back. Predictions might not be his thing but give him a ping‑pong bat or better still put him on the pitch and this World Cup gets a whole lot better.