“It was here,” Laia Aleixandri says. “Right here.” The Spain midfielder stands on the grass, boats floating gently by on the Thames, St George’s cross fluttering from the roof of the 13th-century manor house across the lawn, and smiles. It is the perfect place to paint and, a lover of art, Aleixandri has brought her canvases with her, an escape from it all. It is also the perfect place to play and, it turns out, where it all began. “On this actual pitch,” she says.
It was a revelation to her, too. The last time England hosted a European Championship, they were based at Bisham Abbey, just as they had been when they won the 1966 World Cup. The traditional home of the national team, this time it is their quarter-final opponents Spain who are there. Aleixandri, 22 next month, did not know its history, and did not remember that it was part of her own history too, the field where she played her first game for Spain – until things fell into place a fortnight ago.
“My debut was with the under-17s, in 2014, 2015 and, if I remember right, we drew 1-1 and I scored. There were a few of us from the current team who played that day: Patri Guijarro, Aitana Bonmatí, Lucía García, Ona [Batlle] too, and when we got here to train this time we said: ‘Hang on, this looks very familiar…’ Until we got here we had no idea and so, when we saw it, it was like: ‘Oh wow, long time no see.’”
This may be the last time she sees it for a while too, unless they can get through their quarter-final on Wednesday night – and it is their hosts who stand before them. As in 1996, England face Spain. “It will be very competitive: you see that just in the results, but we’re analysing them closely,” says Aleixandri. “They’ve scored a lot of goals, started games well. What stands out for me is the wingers: the damage they can do from there, the crosses they get in: they’re very strong. They’re at home, with their fans: it’s the perfect scenario to win, but it doesn’t always work that way.
“We’re preparing mentally for a stadium packed with England fans but we’ll have a corner that we’ll feel. We’re analysing them, seeing how best to hurt them. And they’ll encounter a Spain that wants to win come what may, that wants to reach the semi-final, play the perfect game.”
They may have to, but there could be something in the way that England play that suits Spain, that is different, at least. Both Denmark’s and Germany’s coaches admitted changing their approach to face the selección, willingly ceding possession at least partly because of a recognition that they could not compete for it. England are less likely to, Aleixandri says, by virtue of how good they are. They have also not yet faced a side that wanted to take the ball from them, as Spain will seek to do.
“This is direct rivals, head to head, and [England’s] level is very high, but I think it will be different from our games so far, to Germany. England have their style. It will be much more equal in approach: we will try to have the ball, to create chances. And they will want that too. We’ve played teams who didn’t want the ball, give it to us, shut up deep and didn’t attack, instead waiting for an error. England will open up more, which will mean we will have more space – it also means they will have more space.”
And that is better? “From my point of view, yes. They will want the ball, and we’ll try to weaken them by having it as much as possible, keeping them in their own half.
“I know a few of them because I have been playing against them at junior level for years – Ellie Roebuck, Lauren Hemp, Georgia Stanway, Chloe Kelly – but I haven’t spoken to many personally.” Soon she will: eight of the England squad will be her teammates at Manchester City next season.
“The other day I was joking with Leila [Ouahabi, who has also signed for City]: we joined in the City WhatsApp group, sent them a photo. Hopefully we can see each other face to face in Brighton. It’s a strange way to meet teammates but that’s football. And international football is nice like that: you often meet up with ex-, current and future teammates. Now we’re fighting against each other for a medal but when we come back [to club football] we’ll fight for more together, I’m sure.
“I fell in love with City: not just the facilities, the club’s idea, the manager, but also the playing style. I feel I can contribute a lot with their philosophy of keeping the ball. I spoke to Vicky [Losada], who said how keen they were, and I think it was a very good footballing decision. The Spanish league is taking big steps with professionalisation, competitiveness, development but – and I spoke to Ona about this – you notice the difference in the English league. Things like image rights, how many good teams there are, the depth of quality.”
At club level they have become rivals, Aleixandri laughs. “From 15, 16, I always wanted to play in England. Ona and I used to talk about it a lot when we were younger. She went to United and has told me about the big games, like City-United. And if I have to kick her when that comes around, no problem at all. What I have to do I have to do. At moments like that, there are no friends.”
First, though, there is Spain and the win they need to continue their search for the country’s first senior success and bring them back right here, to the pitch where it all began.