Julen Lopetegui, whose name is something that resembles the sound you make when you sneeze with a particularly phlegmy cold, has filled the gapingly vacant Real Madrid manager’s post, and came as a surprise. His subsequent firing from the Spain post on Wednesday was an outright shock.
The timing is worse than poor as Spain prepare to play their first World Cup match on Friday June 15. The appointment to Real Madrid was seen as a coup but Lopetegui’s sacking from Spain makes the gambit far riskier now.
For the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Lopetegui’s post La Rojas career plan caught them off guard. It was a critical time on the national team with so many experienced players — such as Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, and probably Gerard Pique — seeing their last World Cup this year and the announcement of Lopetegui going was considered unacceptable by Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales. Wednesday morning: Lopetegui was out and Spain’s sporting director, Fernando Hierro, was in.
Rubiales says he could not accept a federation employee entertaining job offers without telling them. It’s not an unreasonable reaction but one that does smack a bit of wanting to set a tone of ‘we won’t be pushed around’ to the big clubs early. Lopetegui doesn’t leave the squad entirely in the lurch; Hierro reportedly said he will try to change as little as possible. It isn’t like he has the time to make changes–Spain play their first match against rivals Portugal in just one day.
It brings to an end — at least for now — a bizarre set of circumstances both in Madrid and Russia.
What Madrid wanted
Real Madrid have been casting about for a manager whose gravitas would be at least somewhere close to Zidane’s. But the candidate pool has been somewhat small.
Journalist Guillem Balague said that “Real Madrid didn’t want to deal with Tottenham owner Daniel Levy” as a reason why Mauricio Pochettino was not considered for the position, but reasons offered for this statement seemed only to include that Pochettino just signed a new contract. One overlooked reason: Spurs cannot afford for him to go as they move to a new stadium next season. They need him.
That left Arsene Wenger, Antonio Conte, and Jurgen Klopp as the other names being batted about. Clearly none were good fits. Who could step into Zizou’s shoes, continue the work of bringing up younger players, and perhaps most important of all at Real Madrid, manage the larger than life personalities? Who, indeed, already knew some of those giant characters?
Lopetegui ticks the boxes in terms of immediate resume since he’s coached Spain since 2016. He’s well-liked and known to many players. Those same players would attempt to save him from a sacking on Wednesday.
Questions remain over Lopetegui’s suitability at the league level. He was fired at Porto in 2016 after a poor first half of the year in which he managed to lead his team to Champions League elimination and a third place finish. Prior coaching stints included youth Spain teams, Real Madrid B, and a season at then-second level Rayo Vallecano that saw him sacked after just ten matches (the team went on to be relegated).
While Lopetegui’s league coaching experience has been middling to horrific, his playing career was fine enough (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Rayo). His work with Spain had been heralded as promising. Had he stayed on as Spain’s coach, his every move would be scrutinized; he would have been under tremendous pressure to lead Spain into the semifinals at the least in order to maintain momentum as he comes into Real Madrid.
This turn of events doesn’t help Real Madrid. Their big-name coach who could have come in after World Cup success now won’t have that opportunity. What they do have is a coach who now has an impressive history of being shown the door. If he cannot turn it around at the Bernabeu, then he will be adding Real Madrid to his list of clubs he’s bombed out of.