It will either be the setback that brings Spain players closer than ever before, bound together by adversity; or it will be the moment their World Cup dream ended before it had even begun.
Those are the scenarios for one of the favourites to win the 2018 World Cup after coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament for agreeing to become the next Real Madrid manager — without telling his national federation.
The announcement came just two days before Spain play in one of the toughest group games of the first stage in Russia, against European champions Portugal in Sochi, and has left Spanish supporters aghast and angry.
The Spanish football federation reportedly found out about Lopetegui’s skullduggery only five minutes before an official announcement from Real Madrid revealed he will be replacing Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu. But the fact they reacted so quickly, immediately firing a manager who had just agreed
an extension to his contract, has gone down well back home and handed them the moral high ground.
Spanish media described the whole episode as an ‘earthquake’ for the national team but has nevertheless quickly rallied behind the squad which will now be led by sporting director Fernando Hierro, the former Real Madrid defender.
The situation clearly has the potential to derail Spain’s World Cup hopes after they went two years unbeaten under Lopetigui to confirm themselves as one of the favourites, along with Germany and Brazil, to triumph in Moscow on July 15.
But the early messages coming out of Spain suggest a ‘rallying of the troops’ could have the opposite effect and inspire them to give even more for the cause.
There was certainly praise for Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales, who took what has been described as a brave and honorable decision to sack his head coach and regain some level of control, leaving Real Madrid and their new manager as the bad guys.
Captain Sergio Ramos was the first to react, issuing a defiant statement on social media which reassured Spain fans that players would not be distracted.
As for Rubiales, his statement was well received in his own country as a nation slowly came to terms with a quite remarkable situation.
Rubiales said: “I know it’s a very difficult situation. I know there’s going to be criticism whatever I do. But 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 — taking over a team that had under performed Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016 — had not lost a single game since then. So, it is almost impossible to understand his thinking when announcing so soon before a World Cup that he was leaving his players behind.
The lure of Real is, of course, a huge one. But for a manager with a chance to win a World Cup to jeopardise his own country’s chances with such an untimely announcement beggars belief.
Only two weeks before accepting the job at the Bernabeu, he had renewed his contract with Spain until 2020, but now it seems there is an extra advantage for Real in the way things have panned out — they will no longer have to pay compensation for a manager who has been sacked and left jobless. Conspiracy theories will abound.
Until Spain walk out against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co in Sochi tomorrow, the real effect of the episode will be hard to ascertain; but certainly if Spain lose their opening match under Hierro, it will create a hugely difficult environment for Lopetegui’s abandoned players, while the media storm that is likely to surround the former coach will be ugly and divisive.
The more optimistic outcome is that Spain, brought closer by the situation they find themselves in, and rallied by Ramos and Hierra, produce a famous win over their Iberian rivals and go on to top Group B on the way to a successful tournament.
That’s a scenario the Spanish public and media are driving for on the eve of the game.
Hierro has a big job to do. Clearing up after an earthquake is no easy matter.
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