Wigs, memes and songs: Welcome to Spain's summer of Cucurella

COLOGNE — Whether at Spain’s Euro 2024 training camp in Der Öschberghof in the Black Forest or on a tram to one of their games in Germany, one player has emerged as the central figure: Marc Cucurella.

For the 1-0 group-stage win against Italy in Gelsenkirchen, Spain supporter Juanma Romero and four friends all sported wigs in admiration of the Chelsea left-back’s trademark long hair. “The Cucurella Boys,” Romero wrote on X with an image of them posing inside the Arena AufSchalke.

By the time Spain played their third and final group game against Albania, the wigs had multiplied. They were no longer just in black, either, but also in Spain red and yellow. A group of Germany fans had even adopted Cucurella’s hair for the game and, at any given opportunity, led Spanish supporters in chants of “Cucu-rella” on the tram on the way to the Arena Düsseldorf.

The wigs and chants have come accompanied with memes and songs. One meme is simple: legendary Brazil left-back Roberto Carlos with Cucurella’s hair superimposed on his head. “We’re alike in everything except the hair,” Cucurella joked this week in an interview with Spanish media.

The same themes have developed at Spain’s base in the south of Germany. Midfielder Mikel Merino said the memes have been passed around the players’ WhatsApp group. “They’re funny,” Cucurella added.

There is also a TikTok song which has gone viral. The singer, Adri Navarro, has hair like Cucurella and sings about the Spain full-back, in Spanish: “Cucu Cucu-rella, he eats paella; Cucu Cucu-rella, he drinks Estrella; Erling Haaland trembles, when he sees Cucurella.”

Cucurella, playing mini golf with his teammates this week, lost a bet to Spain captain Álvaro Morata and had to sing the song in front of his teammates, sparking roars of laughter at a base camp which is increasingly growing in confidence ahead of Spain’s round-of-16 meeting with Georgia on Sunday.

“If I putted, Morata would sing and if not, I would,” Cucurella told COPE. “It wasn’t a tough putt and I am lethal at mini golf, in a good way, so I thought it was easy, but I felt the pressure.”

Behind the wigs, memes, songs and missed putts, though, is a player having a brilliant tournament against the odds in Germany — especially given he was expected to play a backup role to Bayer Leverkusen’s Alejandro Grimaldo who was coming off the back of a stellar unbeaten season with the German side.

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, a pundit for ITV in England, said before the finals started that it felt like “something was missing” for Spain to go all the way and that “having Cucurella at left-back is probably one of the examples of that.”

It is an opinion which has not aged well so far in this tournament, but one that would not have been uncommon before a ball had been kicked in Spain’s first game against Croatia.

Cucurella, 25, has had an interesting career to date. Highly rated at Barcelona, he never quite made the grade at the Catalan club where he made just one first-team appearance, with spells at Eibar and Getafe eventually taking him to the Premier League and Brighton & Hove Albion. A €65 million move to Chelsea in 2022 followed, after a single season at Brighton saw him stand out, but things didn’t immediately click in London and the cost of the transfer has haunted him ever since.

“He’s tenacious and aggressive, but that pricetag still astounds everybody to this day,” Neville added.

Last summer, Cucurella was close to a move to Manchester United on loan, but the deal fell through. In September, ESPN reported that Chelsea were open to offers for him to leave permanently in January. But, in the end, that never happened because he got injured.

At the start of this year, therefore, a place in Spain’s XI for Euro 2024 seemed impossible. Yet here he is; one of the revelations of the tournament so far. Everything changed in March, when he returned from injury and won his place back in Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea side and he ended the season playing 90 minutes in 12 successive Premier League games.

Those performances earned him what was effectively a debut for Spain. His first appearance for the senior side technically came in June 2021, when the Under-21s were called up to replace the first team due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was not until March of this year, in a friendly against Brazil, that he will feel he made his real debut.

His third and fourth caps came in pre-tournament friendlies against Andorra and Northern Ireland. Then, he was thrown in for the Euro 2024 opener against Croatia in Berlin, picked ahead of Grimaldo.

There are doubts over whether Cucurella would even have been in the squad if Valencia’s Jose Luis Gaya and Barcelona’s Alejandro Balde had been fit, but his fortune may also be Spain’s. Cucurella is perhaps the best defensively out of that quartet of options and, as Spain progressed with three clean sheets, he has justified his selection.

Against Croatia he produced one outstanding goal-line block, but it was against Italy that he really stood out. Cucurella completed 51/51 passes, won 10 duels, made seven ball recoveries, and was not dribbled past once. He was the perfect foil for winger Nico Williams, who was able to cause havoc ahead of him on the left flank.

“He was magnificent in all aspects of his game,” said Spain coach Luis de la Fuente, who coached Cucurella at the Olympic Games in 2021 and during his tenure as U21 boss.

Diario AS called him a “fabulous discovery” after that display against Italy. Marca, in their player ratings, said he was “the perfect mix of Marcelo and Ferland Mendy.” Their rating out of 10? “10… 11 even.” No notes.

“He is more defensive, he also played as a left-sided centre-back at times at Chelsea,” Grimaldo, who eventually came into the side for the final group game against Albania as Cucurella was rested, said in a news conference this week. “I am more attacking. At the end of the day, we are both left-backs but with different profiles. And we can help in different phases of the game depending on what coach feels convenient.

“There is no rivalry; we are friends and it is healthy competition. The position is well covered and whoever plays will help the team. We have the same objective.”

That objective is to win Euro 2024. After strolling through the group stage with three wins and three clean sheets — the first time Spain have ever achieved that in a major tournament — they take on Georgia, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, in Cologne this weekend. They have ended up on the same side of the draw as Germany, Portugal, France and Belgium, though, so tougher tasks will follow if they progress.

If Spain do manage to go all the way, though, Cucurella is likely to remain the centre of attention — after all, he’s promised to dye his long hair red if Spain lift the trophy for a fourth time in Berlin on July 14.

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