Spain Wins Nations League Final as Unai Simon Saves Two Croatia Penalties in Shootout

AP Photo / Martin Meissner
Spain players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Nations League final match between Croatia and Spain at De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Sunday.

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — Spain’s 11-year trophy drought is over. Croatia and its veteran captain Luka Modric are still waiting for their first international title.

Goalkeeper Unai Simon saved two shots as Spain beat Croatia in a penalty shootout after their tense Nations League final had finished 0-0 Sunday.

The Bilbao goalkeeper used his feet to save a penalty by Lovro Majer when the shootout was level at 3-3 and then dived full-length to tip Bruno Petković’s spot kick around the post.

Dani Carvajal converted his penalty — with a “Panenka” chip — to seal the victory.

Spain coach Luis De La Fuente said Carvajal had taken penalties well in practice ahead of the final.

“He has a fantastic personality and that’s the way he decided to take it,” he said. “We have total confidence in his ability to take penalties.”

Spain’s other previous titles came in the 2010 World Cup and the European Championships in 1964, 2008 and 2012.

Midfielder Rodri, who punched the air after scoring his penalty, has four titles this season after also winning a historic treble with his club, Manchester City. He was named the player of the Nations League tournament to cap his memorable year.

Spain did not manage a shot on target until the 84th minute of the match and when substitute Ansu Fati finally looked like breaking the stalemate, Ivan Perišić was on the goal line to block his effort. It was Spain’s only goal-bound attempt, compared to five by Croatia.

In the first period of extra time, Majer broke through and fell in the penalty area under a challenge by Nacho, but German referee Felix Zwayer ruled that the Spain defender had played the ball and waved off Croatia’s appeals for a penalty.

“I think it makes the win even more epic doing it this way,” De La Fuente said.

Croatia’s fans – many wearing shirts with Modric’s name and No. 10 on the back — far outnumbered their Spanish counterparts at De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam.

But they were forced to leave disappointed as their nation and the 37-year-old Modric continued their wait for a first international title.

Croatia finished second at the World Cup in 2018 and third in Qatar last year. Modric, meanwhile, has won the Champions League five times with Real Madrid and was named FIFA’s world player of the year in 2018, breaking the decade-long dominance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the title. But he has not been able to cap his glittering career with international honors.

Whether he will have another try at next year’s European Championships remains to be seen.

“I’d love Luka to stay,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said. “He’s a very important player for us.”

De La Fuente agreed.

“I hope he carries on because we never want great players to leave the game,” he said.

Spain went a step better than the last Nations League final in 2021, when it lost to France. Not bad for a team with a coach, Luis De La Fuente, who only took charge after the World Cup in Qatar and came in for criticism when his team lost 2-0 to Scotland in European Championship qualifying.

Spain’s players went to a small section of their fans in one corner of the stadium to celebrate their victory.

Both sides came close in the first half.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković fumbled an innocuous shot by Fabián Ruiz and the ball bounced off the post in the ninth minute, but Livaković recovered quickly to block an attempt by Álvaro Morata, who was flagged offside. Three minutes later, Gavi dragged a shot just wide.

But after weathering the early storm, Croatia — with Modric directing the action from midfield — then created the best chances.

Twice, Modric curled crosses to find Ivan Perišić at the far post but both times Simon in the Spain goal saved. But he saved his two best saves for the penalty shootout.