Lopetegui’s Real Madrid gamble fails to pay off in the short term as Spain’s progressive federation president makes a statement with his sacking

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The World Cup is upon us, and Spain head into their opening clash against Portugal on Friday with a different coach to the one with whom they shared a plane on the way to Russia. While La Roja hope to spend at least the rest of month on foreign soil, Julen Lopetegui has flown back home immediately. His plans as Real Madrid’s new manager will start to be formulated now rather than after his country’s tournament exit as quietly outlined and then prematurely announced.

“To do a Lopetegui is to say to the fans that the country’s flag is worth a lot less than that of a club,” wrote ABC de Sevilla’s Manuel Contreras. “To do a Lopetegui is to abandon ship under the cover of darkness treacherously two nights before the first battle, not giving your soldiers a battle cry to fight with courage but rather a message that he isn’t going to that war with you.”

The national media have not pulled any punches regarding the conduct of their outgoing coach. This is another example of a clash between the interests of club and country.

After Lopetegui extended his Spain contract back on May 22nd, a secret agreement between the La Roja coach and Real Madrid was struck up without the Spanish football federation’s knowledge. Five minutes prior to Los Blancos publishing the news in a form of a press release on their official website on Tuesday, recently appointed federation president Luis Rubiales was informed for the first time on the matter.

In footballing terms, it could not come at a worst time. Over the last two years, Lopetegui has guided Spain through World Cup qualification unscathed, still protecting an unbeaten record at the time of his dismissal. His system was in place, with his tendencies to pick on merit over reputation a breath of fresh air. While it is not in question that the former Porto boss would have managed with the utmost professionalism while having his future move to Real Madrid under wraps, the PR nightmare that ensued made Rubiales’ decision for him.

The question is not whether Lopetegui is the right man for the job, nor if Rubiales’ decision damages the country’s chances of lifting a World Cup trophy during in a tournament in which they are one of the favourites. The question is why Real Madrid and Lopetegui moved to jeopardise what had been a stable and encouraging qualifying campaign. Planning ahead is logical, but doing so without open negotiations is inadvisable. The prematurely announced deal was nothing more than a calculated risk that did not come off.

“Change is unstoppable,” Rubiales announced, after being voted into his new role by a majority this year.

“Spanish clubs and our national team are examples that many look to, and obviously that has to be the case not only in a sporting sense,” the new president explained last month. “We have to make the federation a leader in transparency, modernity, to focus on modest football, to give it much more, it is a commitment.”

Three weeks after the ink dried on Lopetegui’s new Spain deal, this farce involving both the national coach and Real Madrid was far from the envisaged utopia that Rubiales wishes to move towards. “He is a professional, but this isn’t right and we can’t look the other way,” the RFEF president explained to a press room that had been forced to wait for nearly two hours.

While the decision to sack Lopetegui on the eve of a major tournament was a big call, it is a necessary one en route to a greater goal. By making an exception or letting certain individuals or clubs escape without blame or consequence, it would only ensure that Rubiales hasn’t stuck by his own values and promises merely weeks into his tenure. While the news has invariably come as a shock, it is the statement required to show that the RFEF are serious in their aims. Let one thing slide and cracks begin to show and double standards become common.

The performance of Spain’s national team may suffer as a result in a case of collateral damage, with Fernando Hierro stepping into the managerial void at short notice. The plan will remain the same, with Lopetegui’s good work not to be questioned. La Roja will play similarly, have a similar hierarchy and have the same potential as they did before his sacking, but with a different man at the helm.

Hierro will be supported by Spanish U21 coach Albert Celades, with the remit of “touching as little as possible,” after Lopetegui’s dismissal. La Roja have a great squad and a style of play that should see them well in Russia. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

“Yesterday, today and tomorrow, we’re together,” Sergio Ramos tweeted in the aftermath. The responsibility and pressure on the players’ shoulders will have stepped up a notch while the Lopetegui fiasco unfolded, but there is still plainly more than enough talent to see La Roja bid to go all the way in Russia, with or without him.


By Simon Harrison

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