World Cup 2018: Spain sack manager Julen Lopetegui two days before first match

By BBC

Lopetegui was named Spain boss in 2016 and was unbeaten during his time in charge

(BBC) – Spain have sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui after he was named the new Real Madrid boss, two days before their opening World Cup match with Portugal.

Real Madrid announced on Tuesday that Lopetegui would succeed Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu on a three-year deal.

The Spanish football federation (RFEF) said it had dismissed the 51-year-old because the negotiation occurred “without any information to the RFEF”.

Spain sporting director Fernando Hierro will take charge for the World Cup.

The former Real Madrid and Bolton Wanderers defender is in his second spell as sporting director, having returned to the role in November 2017, six years after leaving the position.

The tournament starts on Thursday in Russia.

RFEF president Luis Rubiales, who was told of Lopetegui’s new role with Real five minutes before it was announced, said he had found himself in “a very difficult situation”.

“I know there’s going to be criticism whatever I do,” he added.

“I’m sure this will, in time, make us stronger. I admire Julen very much, I respect him very much. He seems a top trainer and that makes it harder to make the decision.

“You can’t do things this way, two or three days before the World Cup. We have been compelled to make this decision.”

Lopetegui became Spain manager in 2016 following Vicente del Bosque’s retirement, and remained unbeaten through his reign.

Spain won 14 of 20 games with Lopetegui in charge, drawing the remaining six.

According to reports in Spain, Rubiales was incensed when he discovered Lopetegui had agreed a deal with Madrid.

He left a Fifa Congress meeting in Moscow early in order to return to Spain’s base in Krasnodar.

It has been claimed senior players – including captain Sergio Ramos – fought for Lopetegui to remain in charge for the duration of the World Cup.

Spain begin their World Cup campaign against Portugal on Friday in a match live on BBC One (19:00 BST kick-off).

Analysis

Maybe the Spanish FA should have just smacked Lopetegui’s hand, and said “naughty boy,” but let’s continue because two days later we have to face Portugal.

But within the squad the players were divided as well. Now, by getting rid of Lopetegui, everybody can focus on one thing. You’ve seen it in history that when big obstacles get overcome and everybody gets joined together, it can actually benefit the national side, even though right now it’s a big drama.

Fernando Hierro knows the federation and knows the players. He was really crucial in 2010 after Spain lost their opening game against Switzerland. He got everyone together and he’s got the talent to do that again.

Do I think Spain can still go far in the World Cup? Put it this way, is Isco still playing? Is Aspas still on the bench but scoring goals? Diego Costa? Sergio Ramos? Gerard Pique? Jordi Alba? The team is still strong.

In terms of them taking their minds off a game it’s not possible. Players just focus, they get into the action and nothing else matters.

But of course they love the easy life that they’re not going to get outside of when they are actually playing. For them, the matches will be a chance to escape the noise that has already been produced and will continue to be produced over the next few weeks.

Reaction in Spain

El Mundo newspaper called the saga a “ridiculous locking of horns” between Lopetegui and Rubiales, who, it said, “spent all night listening to opinions, but with one idea fixed in his head – dismissal”.

AS sports paper called it an “earthquake”, while Marca offers a detailed timeline under the headline “three hours that changed the course of Spain’s World Cup focus”.

El Pais had anticipated the troubles to come earlier with a piece headlined “Bad Madrid, worse Lopetegui”, saying the head coach could not risk “becoming a pyromaniac in what is still his own house” so soon before the first game.

‘A shocking development’

If Tuesday’s news that Julen Lopetegui had been appointed the new coach of Real Madrid came as a surprise, Wednesday’s bombshell that he has been sacked as Spain manager boosted the shockwave to an entirely new level.

The first sign that such a drastic move was on the cards came on Tuesday night when Spanish Football Federation Luis Rubiales made his displeasure plain by commenting that he would make the “right decision”.

On Wednesday morning everyone was guessing what that decision would be, with several reports claiming Rubiales had been persuaded against firing Lopetegui by Spain’s players, who were comfortable with him remaining in charge.

But that story soon proved to be yet another slice of misinformation when Rubiales held a sensational press conference to confirm the departure of the coach just two days before their World Cup opener against Portugal.

The federation chief, who has only been in his post for a month, made it very plain that the decision to fire Lopetegui was taken because of the way his departure for Madrid was handled.

Rubiales repeatedly and insistently stated the federation knew absolutely nothing about the negotiations until five minutes before the Bernabeu club sent a press release to reveal Lopetegui’s appointment – he also confirmed he had asked for the announcement to be delayed, but the plea went unheeded.

In a wider context, this shocking development is part of a wider political power play within Spanish football, with newly-appointed Rubiales seizing the first opportunity to show that the federation will not allow itself to be pushed around by anyone – not even Real Madrid.

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