Moscow: This time, it could not be pinned on Gerard Pique. Or the Catalans. Spain’s problems rose from its power centre. A crisis of Real Madrid’s making, Julen Lopetegui’s misjudgement, and Luis Rubiales’ (president of the Spanish Football Federation, RFEF) ego.
It was all about “five minutes”. Rubiales came to know of the impending announcement when Julen Lopetegui called him on Tuesday. Following a tense half-hour conversation with the manager and a missed call, the RFEF president asked Real Madrid to delay the announcement.
But Madrid wanted to break the news and went ahead anyway. Rubiales would not accept that. The Spanish Radio Marca has claimed that six Real Madrid members of the World Cup squad were already aware of the appointment. The problem was born when a playing member outside the group learnt the news.
Lopetegui was worried that a leak was in the offing, so he contacted Madrid to avoid any unpleasantness. Clearly, he was wrong. In the press conference on Wednesday, Rubiales implicitly blamed Madrid, and not Lopetegui, for the crisis when he said, “If it was up to the coach, I am sure he would have done things differently.” Madrid is often held up as the ultimate symbol of Spanish nationalism, but its enlarging influence on the country’s football scene is a cause for worry now.
It seems rather petty to not wait a little if the Spanish Federation wanted to release a statement first. Lopetegui, after all, was still an employee of the national body, having signed a contract extension till 2020 only a few weeks ago. This is not unprecedented territory for Spain either. On the morning of the Euro 2008 semifinal against Russia, it was publicly revealed that Luis Aragones was moving to Fenerbahce after the tournament.
The news break, however, did not develop into a storm, in part owing to the goodwill enjoyed by Aragones. But Rubiales, only a month into his new position, clearly did not like the fact that he was kept outside the loop. His response to this situation had much to do with asserting his own power, and not just about ethics like he claimed in the press conference. The decision, Rubiales felt, was an obligation. But to whom? While he was justified in demanding that he should have known all along, was his decision worth the damage caused to Spain’s campaign?
Under Lopetegui, La Roja were a clear favourite for the tournament. In the two years since his appointment as Spain manager, no other national side could boast of a better record – 14 wins and six draws. Was his ability to manage the side seriously compromised only because he had taken up a new job? That is a tough case to make. Of course, Lopetegui was not allowed to present his account on Wednesday. But he will hold a press conference soon and some answers might be known then. For now, Spain find themselves in the hands of Fernando Hierro.
A safe choice as the former Real Madrid skipper was already part of the national setup in his role as director of football. Within a day, Spain has moved from a future Real Madrid manager to a past Real Madrid legend. Even now, the national side cannot shake off Madrid’s long shadow. While the players would not be averse to working with Hierro, it has been reliably learnt that they stood up for Lopetegui before he was sacked.
Now, it is time for them to stand up for the departing manager’s tactics. As Hierro said on Wednesday, it is too late to change anything. Spain will play in their usual possession-heavy style, but with more options to change games. Unlike the previous World Cup and Euro 2016, this Spanish side can play a more direct style of football when required.
If Spain does recover from the Lopetegui fracas to win the World Cup, the sacked manager will deserve some credit. The 51-year-old had trained this team immaculately until the slip arrived. Of course, the manner in which Lopetegui handled his future deserves scrutiny. But the existing schisms in Spanish football cannot be overlooked. Rubiales wanted to assert himself, lest he be mistaken for a weak leader.
Real Madrid looked no further than their own agenda, a long-standing tendency which has wider ramifications now. With Lopetegui set to take charge at the Santiago Bernabeu next season, one can be sure there is more to come in this episode.
But for Spain, the departure of Lopetegui has made the already-difficult task of winning the World Cup nearly impossible. Miracles, of course, happen. So do shocks, as we witnessed on Wednesday afternoon. Now it will be time for Spain to pray that their team has not been completely knocked off course. Disaster is knocking on the door.