The news came right out of the blue on Tuesday: Spain coach Julen Lopetegui would take charge of Real Madrid after the World Cup on a three-year deal.
The timing of the announcement seemed odd. Spain were two days away from starting their World Cup campaign. Surely this revelation would be a distraction for the national team? It would change the dynamic of the group, alter the course of the press coverage and cause friction between the coach and the Spanish football authorities.
Video footage of a heated exchange on the training ground between Lopetegui and Sporting Director Fernando Hierro seemed to bear this out.
The media also went on the attack with journalist Manu Carreno of Spanish radio network Cadena Ser claiming the players would be distracted. He accused the Basque coach of destabilising the group and leaving the RFEF in an awkward position. He lamented: “I hope we (Spain) do not pay for it.”
Other reports in Spain suggest that it had been agreed that the announcement would be held back until after the tournament, but a leak forced their hand. The RFEF were informed and an official statement released within the space of a few minutes – a series of events that did not go down well with Spain’s officials.
The fact the technician renewed his contract with the Federation on May 22 until 2020 compounded their indignation, despite Real Madrid’s willingness to pay the €2 million release clause.
This led us to the farcical situation on Wednesday morning when a press conference was called by RFEF President Luis Rubiales.
Talk on Spanish Radio suggested that Lopetegui would be released from his role a day before the World Cup with U-21 boss Albert Celades stepping in, perhaps aided by Hierro. Both were already in Russia as part of the national team working group.
The press conference was then put back by an hour as a group including Fernando Hierro, Sergio Ramos, Lopetegui and Rubiales continued to discuss the situation.
Radio Marca reported that a delegation of players had asked Rubiales not to fire Lopetegui. “Swallow your pride and let us play,” was the message.
An hour passed at there was still no sign of the protagonists. The murmurs now emanating from the press were that the coach would stay on – an accord had been reached thanks to the intervention of the players who pleaded for continuity. But when the door finally opened, Rubiales entered alone.
His first words clarified that Lopetegui had been dismissed: “The RFEF, the national team, is the team of all Spaniards and there are decisions that have to be taken, we have found ourselves in a situation that has not been handled well, and there has to be a clear message from RFEF.”
“We have been forced to remove over the coach, remembering all the good things he has given and to wish him the best of luck.”
He then moved to explain what would happen next: “Now, two days from the start of the World Cup, we have to work now, there is a lot to do.”
He added, “Lopetegui has done an impeccable job, but things have been done without the participation of the RFEF and we cannot ignore that. We will change as little as possible in the coaching staff.”
He explained how he had only found out himself five minutes before it was announced and had asked the club to delay the announcement but they went ahead, regardless.
“I will not judge how one club or another acts but until recently we have been kept in the dark and that cannot be ignored. The RFEF cannot find out that Lopetegui is the new coach of Real Madrid five minutes before it is made public.”
He insisted that they did not want to talk about a replacement yet but there would be as little disruption as possible.
In the hours that followed the press conference, the RFEF announced that Albert Celades – the current Spanish under-21s manager – will take up the position of Spain coach for the duration of the tournament.
The whole situation has thrown Spain’s World Cup plans into turmoil and, as much as Rubiales has insisted there will be as little disruption as possible, the situation is bound to be raw as most of the players were against the coach’s removal.
The only hope now is that they set out to win the tournament in his honour and ignore the circus that will follow them throughout this tournament.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Spain’s World Cup group in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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