A remarkable 24 hours in Spanish football saw the national team coach announce a move to Real Madrid, then get sacked and replaced by his boss
Well, that escalated quickly.
On Monday, Spain seemed ready to go as La Roja completed final preparations before Friday’s kick-off against Portugal in their opening World Cup game. On Tuesday, Real Madrid broke the news that Spain’s manager, Julen Lopetegui, would move to Real’s bench after the tournament.
On Wednesday, the Spanish Federation announced the sacking of Lopetegui and then his replacement – former player Fernando Hierro, who had been in charge of the sporting direction of the national side.
Controversy immediately sparked after Real Madrid’s dynamite statement torched the peaceful (to that point) gathering of the national team in Krasnodar. Mobile phones rang like crazy and text messages were delivered with lightning speed.
The players themselves didn’t know what the heck was going on. Only a handful of individuals, obviously including Julen Lopetegui and Sergio Ramos knew about talks between the manager and Los Blancos. They wanted to prevent leaks, but ultimately the official statement only added fuel to an already huge bonfire.
— Selección Española de Fútbol (@SeFutbol) June 13, 2018
With a crisis developing, Luis Rubiales – rookie Spanish federation president who has been in charge for only a month – felt absolutely devastated. And betrayed. Rubiales had been keen on sealing a future with Lopetgui and was ecstatic to announce the manager’s contract extension until 2020 just three weeks before. That snapshot was surely on his mind when he learned, “only 5 minutes before Real made it official”, that his coach was going to jump ship potentially a couple of weeks later.
It’s not the first time that ethics, protocol and elegance are discussed with football as their backdrop. In this case, it seems quite clear that Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, lacks the former and despises the latter, giving absolutely zero relevance to the fact that Spain would debut in Russia only 72 hours after the announcement. A shocking piece of news that would surely affect the environment and day-to-day inner-workings of La Selección.
What would non-Madridista players think? What would fans who heavily criticised some of the players taken to Russia believe about the manager’s integrity? Tensions, backstabbing and an overall lack of trust were going to make themselves at home inside the locker room.
— Real Madrid C.F.⚽ (@realmadrid) June 12, 2018
And that’s why Rubiales decided to behead Lopetegui. Plain and simple.
His words were harsh, but the point came across loud and clear: “Winning is important, recruiting the best talent is important, but the most important thing for us is how things are done”, said Rubiales in Wednesday’s tense press conference.
Within the Spanish Federation, Lopetegui’s move was perceived as a betrayal not because of the fact itself, but due to the way it was handled and announced, with total secrecy and without giving the heads-up to the board members.
After thanking Lopetegui for his great job in the qualifiers (he has been sacked without losing a single game in two years), he was fired on the spot. Even if some of the players in the squad asked Rubiales to keep him for the tournament.
Who is to blame for this? The Spanish football community is divided between those who think the firing is the right choice, and those who believe Lopetegui should have seen it through to the end of the World Cup. Real Madrid’s high profile and vast resources amongst national outlets have allowed them to come out of the ordeal pretty unscathed, even if they are the second party with most of the blame to foot. The main party responsible, however, is Lopetegui himself. This decision will haunt him throughout the rest of his managing career.
⏲ Five minutes ⏲
It was repeated over and over by Rubiales.
Timing was the trigger for Lopetegui's #ESP sacking.
And unleashing crisis in Krasnodar.
— MARCA in English (@MARCAinENGLISH) June 13, 2018
While the wound was still bleeding, Rubiales thought about handing the task to Albert Celades (in charge of the U-21 team), but finally settled for Fernando Hierro, which is actually quite a smart move. Hierro was one of the key ‘plumbers’ and silent links between the Federation and Spain’s squad during the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup wins.
However, his track record as a manager isn’t that impressive (he was sacked from Real Oviedo after a poor eighth place), and he doesn’t have the time to leave his imprint in this set-up. He will pick the starters, make the subs and overall try to stop the team from falling apart.
That enough would be a tremendous challenge for anyone…but don’t forget we’re talking about Spain here. Plenty of talent at hand. Inspiring, strong-personality leaders such as Sergio Ramos or Gerard Piqué. The Lopetegui affair has added a halo of unpredictability to an already top-seeded side. Who knows: maybe sacking the manager two days before debuting becomes the most inspired decision of this summer?