Irish football fans won’t have had too much trouble coming up with a comparison for 24 hours which saw World Cup challengers Spain come close to total meltdown just two days before their opening Group B game against Portugal in Sochi.
It all seemed to be going so smoothly as La Roja flew through qualification under new coach Julen Lopetegui, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games, scoring 36 goals, while conceding just three.
A 1-1 draw at defending world champions Germany and 6-1 hammering of Argentina in March’s friendlies led to huge optimism ahead of this summer’s competition.
Earlier this week, the biggest issues among local fans and pundits were pretty mundane: A debate over whether Iago Aspas or Diego Costa would start up front, and worries if Dani Carvajal would return from injury to start at right-back.
However, Tuesday afternoon saw Lopetegui surprisingly announced as Real Madrid coach for next season, despite the Basque having signed a new contract with Spain’s football federation [RFEF] up until Euro 2022 just three weeks ago.
In Moscow for the World Cup 2026 host vote, federation president Luis Rubiales flew back to the team’s camp in Krasnodar to announce that he was firing Lopetegui for betraying the values of Spanish football.
“If anybody wants to talk to one of our employees, they have to speak to us too, that is basic, as this is the team of all Spaniards,” Rubiales said at yesterday morning’s snap press conference.
“The national team is the most important we have, the World Cup is the biggest of all.”
Nobody comes out of this mess looking good, not Rubiales, Lopetegui, nor Madrid president Florentino Perez, while a Spanish squad which had been among the tournament favourites now looks close to falling apart at the seams.
Spain’s players were reportedly in favour of Lopetegui staying on for the tournament, led by team captain Sergio Ramos and five more Madrid clubmates in the 23-man squad. The thoughts of others, such as Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique, or Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa, are not yet publicly known.
Battle lines have already been drawn among the local media, with pundits close to the Bernabeu claiming bafflement at all the fuss over Lopetegui’s decision to break a contract to join Madrid, and those in the Catalan press talking about betrayals of the national team.
Before taking over as federation president last month, one-time Hamilton Academicals midfielder Rubiales was mostly known for delaying the start of the 2011/12 La Liga season by calling a strike as Spanish players’ union president.
New to his current position, he felt he could not let Lopetegui’s betrayal stand, and Fernando Hierro was hastily installed as the new ‘seleccionador’ to face the media and pick the team during the tournament.
Hierro was already in Russia as the federation’s technical director, with his duties mostly around off-pitch planning and logistics. He had even appeared to suggest earlier this week that he fancied filling the Bernabeu coaching vacancy himself, and was caught on camera arguing with the new holder of that position on Tuesday evening by Spanish TV.
The former Spain and Madrid defender has seen plenty during his decades in football, selected for four World Cups and winning three Champions Leagues during a long and successful playing career.
He certainly does not lack for personality or experience, but his only previous coaching job was guiding Real Oviedo to mid-table in the 2016/17 Segunda Division.
“You cannot touch in two days what has been done in many years of work,” Hierro told reporters before taking his first training session last night.
“If I was not convinced we could have a good World Cup I would not be here. It has not been an easy day for anyone, but nobody doubts the commitment of these lads, or what they can give. I told them we have an exciting challenge in front of us and we cannot let this affect our focus.”
Whatever XI Hierro picks tomorrow will not lack for experience or quality, and the team do have an established style of play to cling to. In theory, Ramos and Iniesta can pull together any factions within the squad and focus them on the game against Portugal, but even before this week’s events, Spain’s neighbours presented a tough opening game.
Cristiano Ronaldo and company ran Spain very close before losing Iberian derbies at both World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012.
Fernando Santos’s Euro 2016 winners also know how to defend deep against opponents who have plenty of possession but lack a cutting edge, though they have their own issues to deal with, as four of their Sporting Lisbon players have been trying to escape their club contracts this week.
Fifty-year-old Hierro’s World Cup experience includes a dramatic role in the last 16 at the 2002 tournament, when he pulled Niall Quinn’s jersey to concede an injury-time penalty converted by Robbie Keane, but then atoned himself by converting in the shoot-out as Spain went through.
At that stage he may or may not have been aware of the pre-tournament shenanigans among the Irish squad.
With Morocco and Iran the other teams in Group B, Hierro’s current side should really recover to make the knockout stages whatever happens against Portugal.
However, as with Saipan 16 years ago, the rights and wrongs of this week’s events in Krasnodar will be argued for decades, no matter how far Spain go in the tournament.
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