There have been some remarkable stories in the World Cup over the years but this one you really couldn’t make up.
In one corner last night, Sergio Ramos rallied Spain’s beleaguered troops at a press conference in Sochi by insisting ‘this is no funeral’ as his baffled teammates began life under a new coach with a match against Portugal to negotiate.
In the other, his own club Real Madrid defiantly staged the unveiling of their new manager – the one they had just snatched from under the feet of the Spanish Football Federation, leaving the national team’s World Cup hopes in tatters.
It was the kind of evening when you really needed to be in two places at once, and the only reason that Julen Lopetegui couldn’t do that was because he had been unceremoniously sacked by Spain for the kind of skullduggery that would make Iago embarrassed.
The 51-year-old, who had helped Spain go unbeaten for two years to be installed as one of the favourites in Russia, instead popped up in Madrid where he was tearful as he explained his decision - describing his dismissal as the second saddest day of his life after the death of his mother.
He was, however, also critical of Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales, saying he wouldn’t do things differently with hindsight. “We’re convinced what we’ve done is honest and clear,” he insisted.
“I would change the reaction, hours later, from Rubiales, but I can’t change that. It’s futile.”
As you would expect, Real President Florentino Perez also defended his part in the controversy, accusing Rubiales of ‘disrespecting’ Real Madrid.
But back in Russia, his club captain was in defiant and combative mood as he sought to rescue Spain’s World Cup campaign, starting with today’s game against Portugal in Group B.
Sitting alongside new coach Ferando Hierro, the former sporting director who has been promoted to step into Lopetegui’s shoes, Ramos produced a rousing speech in a bid to rally the troops and left the assembled media with one last message as he said:
Smiling of course hasn’t been that easy for Spain over the last two days but nevertheless Ramos was at pains to insist there are no splits in the camp ahead of what was always going to be a tough opening match in Group B — and which now looks pivotal to their hopes of progressing.
“There is no division whatsoever,” he said. “Obviously we can have different opinions, that’s normal, but the unit is the same, the shared goal is the same and nothing or no-one is going to change that.
"It was a very sensitive time that made some of us feel sad but we need to leave that aside. Problems are an opportunity to grow and this will make us stronger.
“There are few people more qualified than Fernando Hierro to cover Julen’s departure. He’s a player we have admired, a perfect candidate to cover this post.
"We need to be a squad with the same dreams as before and make sure this doesn’t affect us in any way.”
Ramos has always been a fiery character, of course, and he was happy to take the pressure off Hierro — a former Real Madrid and Bolton Wanderers defender — as he handled the more difficult questions, including those about his own failings.
The Real Madrid captain was accused of deliberately injuring Liverpool’s Mo Salah in the Champions League final and of targeting goalkeeper Loris Karius with a challenge which medics later said had left his opponent concussed. But Ramos was in no mood to apologise for his actions or his character.
“I sleep well, I have an easy conscience,” he said. “Some people tried to use certain arguments to become more popular but I am who I am – I have been as I am for many years - and I rest easy.
"If anyone has any doubts about me, they can check my CV. I have nothing to prove.”
With Ramos handling the tougher questions, Hierro was able to concentrate on football as he set out his vision for how Spain will play in this tournament and how he will keep his squad together.
“We are not going to change much,” he said. “We have a clear goal in mind.
"We are keeping a lot of coaching staff from before and you are going to see the Spanish squad that you are used to — one that likes to play beautifully. We are not going to deviate one iota from our concepts. This squad has been playing well for a long time now.
“We need to respect Portugal but we trust fully in our boys. We have three major finals to play in the group stage starting with this game.”
Given Spain’s complicated week it would be easy to forget that Portugal have had controversy to deal with in the background, too, with Sporting Lisbon in meltdown since a group of 50 masked supporters broke into the club and assaulted players and staff ahead of a training session for the Portuguese Cup Final against Aves.
Many of the club’s top stars have since announced they want to leave but midfielder Joao Moutinho acknowledged the issue, and Spain’s problems, by saying: “I think we’ve all believe these things is not going to influence one side or the other.
"We are focused and united and not concerned with anything else. That’s it. We’re not looking at what’s happening with the other teams or what’s going on outside our team.
"We are a very united, strong and focused group. We know the responsibility we’re facing and we’re ready.”
Spain, of course, are saying exactly the same. So perhaps, in the midst of so much off-field drama, a football match might just break out in Sochi.
Let’s hope so.
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