Spain’s Surprising (And Unsurprising) Departure

by | Jun 14, 2018

The build up to the 2018 World Cup finals had been pretty low key. No major controversies, a couple of injuries in warm-up games, some debate over the ethical considerations of consuming a major tournament being held in Russia, nothing more. But yesterday morning, as though compelled by a deep-seated desire to throws cats amongst pigeons, the Spanish FA stepped in and blew that to pieces with the decision to fire manager Julen Lopetegui on the day before it all begins. One of the biggest stories of the tournament has, therefore, been written before a single ball has been kicked.

Lopetegui’s dismissal may have come out of the blue, but it doesn’t come without a little historical context. It’s only been three weeks since he signed a two year extension to his contract to manage the national team, so it’s understandable that a few feathers were ruffled by the confirmation earlier this week that he would be quitting his post after the tournament to take charge of Real Madrid instead, and seasoned Real Madrid watchers will have been similarly unsurprised to learn that the club has hardly covered itself in glory in its behaviour, only notifying the Spanish FA, according to its head Luis Rubiales, five minutes before publicly announcing it. There is no sense of entitlement on earth like Real Madrid’s sense of entitlement, after all.

What has been surprising has been how affronted the Spanish FA has been by this decision. We might have presumed that they above anyone else would understand the lure of los Merengues, and that an approach from them would be taken very seriously by just about any manager. Rubiales told a press conference this morning that his organisation was “obliged” to dismiss Julen Lopetegui with immediate effect, but was that really the case? It would seem that the common sense path of least resistance would have been to simply allow him to see through this tournament and get on with the job of replacing him afterwards. Their reaction, however, feels as though it has been motivated by a fit of pique as much as anything else.

This feeling of dreadful timing only feels all the more accentuated by the fact that Spain were, on the whole, looking as though they were regaining their sense of imperiousness after a couple of tournaments in the relative doldrums. After crashing from the last World Cup in the group stages, they exited the 2016 European Championships in a similarly inglorious manner, losing to Italy in the round of sixteen. Since then, however, the general feeling had been that they were moving ominously back towards their stately best, taking four points from six against Italy in qualification to seal an automatic place in this summer’s finals whilst condemning the Italian team to a play-off tie against Sweden which was lost.

Now, though, that feeling of a team coolly moving up through the gears towards this summer’s World Cup finals has been shattered. Spain play their opening match of the tournament on Friday against Portugal, a match that was already considered one of the must see matches of the group stages even before this whole omnishambles blew up. On top of the whole “Iberian Derby” aspect of things, Portugal are the current European champions – although some may question the extent to which they actually merit such a title – and, of course, they are still configured around St Cristiano de Ronaldo, for whom this is likely to be a World Cup swansong. An already layered match has, therefore, now received yet another sprinkling of intrigue.

This story is also all the more intriguing because of the complex nature of the inter relationship between Real Madrid, the Spanish media, and, we might even venture, the continuing fragile political state in that country at present. The suggestion that Real Madrid were “Franco’s team” was always a little overstated (Franco, by all accounts, had little to no interest in the game unless he could profit from it through positive publicity), but where Barcelona have become enmeshed in the Catalan independence movement, so Real remain considered a “Spanish” club. And what will the Spanish media, which has traditionally cheerleaded for them to the extent of the frequent placement of stories which have been widely interpreted as little more than naked attempts to unsettle players to go to the club, make of it all? The laughter from Catalunya is almost certainly audible in Madrid, today.

It also seems likely that we’re going to learn an awful number of lessons about the nature of football management, team morale and the dynamics of what makes a squad for a tournament work and what doesn’t. This is an unprecedented situation, certainly in a World Cup finals, and the obvious presumption to make is that Spain will now most likely fall to pieces. Considering the amount of importance attached to the job of the manager in the media, that would certainly be an obvious conclusion to reach from all of this. But will they? Dave de Gea doesn’t stop being David de Gea because of this, and neither does Sergio Ramos stop being Sergio Ramos (much as some people might wish that he would), David Silva stop being David Silva, or Diego Costa stop being Diego Costa. Lopetegui was popular amongst the squad, it has widely reported, but he has gone and he is not coming back, so what will the players’ reaction to this most surprising turn of events be? We’ll find out on the first instalment of their response tomorrow evening.

Rubiales has stated that “There are decisions that we are obliged to take based on an understanding of how you should behave and on ethics”, and perhaps it’s jarring that a body involved in the governance of football in any way whatsoever should show any sort of moral barometer. The ship long since failed on Real Madrid showing demonstrated any ethical stance beyond “me me me” when it comes to the recruitment of staff, so even though the idea of a club deliberately behaving in a way that might sabotage a national team’s chances in a World Cup – and a team that has a more than reasonable chance of progressing in a World Cup, for that matter – should seem beyond the pale, the idea of Real Madrid tapping up anyone, under any circumstances, should come as a surprise to no-one.

Lopetegui has behaved unprofessionally – why didn’t he simply say, “I’m busy with our country’s national team, can’t this wait until after the tournament?” – and Real Madrid have behaved poorly – why couldn’t they wait until after the tournament before making an announcement? – but, of course, the impact of negative opinion will be different for each of them. Real Madrid will likely only take a tiny hit to their reputation, especially if Spain do fail to achieve this summer, but ultimately a combination of resignation – “Real Madrid gonna Real Madrid” – and the fact that all that many, many people care about is that Real Madrid keep on winning trophies will likely mean that the negative impact upon them will be minimal, unless the Spanish FA get the bit between their teeth and start legislating regarding the circumstances under which clubs can approach the managers of other clubs.

For Julen Lopetegui, however, the levels of forgiveness will likely be different. He’s fifty-one years old, so we would not be expecting Real Madrid to be anything like the last job of his career. So, when that comes to an end, as it inevitably will and probably in no more than three years time, what comes next? When the football clubs of Europe come across his name on a shortlist of coaches for their clubs, will they think twice about contacting him on account of the way that he has conducted himself over this matter? It’s difficult to say (and to suggest that Real Madrid are the only football club who behave like a creepy uncle hanging around the school gates when it comes to recruitment is obviously ludicrous), but it’s equally difficult to make a case that Lopetegui has enhanced his reputation as a result of this little episode.

Only the twenty/twenty vision of hindsight will be able to tell us whether his late, late replacement, Fernando Hierro, was the luckiest coach in the world or on a hiding to nothing. He has experience and knowledge of the players – he was the Spanish FA’s sporting director for four years, from 2007 to 2011 – and expectations on him couldn’t really be much lower, considering the wealth of playing riches still available at his disposal, but at the same time if putting together a squad of players for a World Cup finals is the intricate task that many, probably most, believe it to be, he’s hardly got the time to instruct the players to do anything but continue with what his predecessor’s plans may have been. Whatever happens to Spain’s World Cup finals from now on, at least no-one can say that it won’t be… interesting, at least.