What price is loyalty? Evidently, a massive one. Spain fired manager Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday, just two days before its opening game at the World Cup, for having agreed to break his contract after the tournament and take charge of Real Madrid.
The Spanish federation was informed of the appointment only five minutes before it was made public. Lopetegui had extended his contract only three weeks ago to keep him in the job until Euro 2020, and it seems Luis Rubiales, the federation president, had no inkling his coach might leave.
Real Madrid, having been caught unaware by Zinedine Zidane’s resignation after the Champions League final, had made contact with Lopetegui on Friday. On Monday, he decided to accept the offer, with Madrid triggering a buyout clause and paying a reported €2 million in compensation. Rubiales was furious and left his Moscow hotel for the team base in Krasnodar, seemingly with the intention of sacking Lopetegui on the spot.
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The squad, though, liked Lopetegui, who has successfully rejuvenated Spain after a disappointing Euro 2016. Spain went 14-0-6 in his 20 games in charge–unblemished and in form entering the World Cup. Senior players intervened and as discussions went on, a press conference initially scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Moscow time was delayed by a little over half an hour as discussions continued. But at a little after 1 p.m. local time, Rubiales emerged to confirm the news.
The issue was not that Lopetegui was leaving. Plenty of countries have gone into tournaments in the past and had success despite knowing their manager will leave immediately afterwards. England for instance, reached the semifinal in 1990 with the knowledge its coach, Bobby Robson, would take over at PSV the following season. It was that Lopetegui was, at least by Rubiales's estimation, perceived to have placed his own career above the needs of his country.
“The negotiations took place without any information to the Spanish FA and we were informed just five minutes before the press release,” said Rubiales. “There’s a way to act that needs to be fulfilled.”
There will be those, perhaps even among the squad, who will accuse Rubiales, a former Levante and Hamilton Academical defender, of having tanked a World Cup bid to slave his own wounded pride, but it’s at least as reasonable to ask whether it was really fitting of Madrid to begin negotiations a week before the World Cup. Rubiales, from another point of view, can be seen as standing up for decency against the whims of the superclubs. Perhaps Rubiales could have backed down, but the real issue here is the arrogance of Real Madrid.
And perhaps most significant is the fact that this is Spain and the toxicity of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona perhaps made his position untenable. Every time he selected a Real Madrid player over a Barcelona player, there would be suggestions Lopetegui was making political decisions, favoring one side rather than the other. Robson going to PSV was a very different story. There were no conflicts of interest there.
Equally, it’s different when somebody like Vicente Del Bosque, who had such a fine career as a Real Madrid manager, becomes coach of the national side. His links to the club are in the past and he can make his decisions objectively. It’s far harder to do that, or least to be seen to do that, if in a month you’re going to be in charge of half of your team and a bitter rival to the other half.
Rubiales said that “as of this afternoon, with the new coach and his staff, we'll move forward,” without naming a successor, but the Spanish federation followed soon after with a statement that sporting director Fernando Hierro would take the reins.
Spain’s group had seemed straightforward, although it was complicated by facing Portugal, the other obvious favorite to go through. Hierro, of course, will have to face Cristiano Ronaldo, one of Lopetegui’s new charges. But Portugal is not exactly in great shape either with no fewer than five players from Sporting trying to cancel their contracts after a farcical end to the season in which ultras stormed their training camp, having allegedly been encouraged to do so by controversial club president Bruno de Carvalho.
Given both Iran and Morocco, the other two sides in the group, are defensively sound and qualified impressively, a loser in Friday's main Group B event could find qualification much harder than it had perhaps seemed when the draw was made. And if Spain’s World Cup campaign does stall, it will be fascinating to see who gets the blame: the easy scapegoat Rubiales, the easily led manager Lopetegui or the great temptress Real Madrid.