What were Spain and Luis Rubiales thinking when sacking Julen Lopetegui?
In April 2016, Chelsea announced Antonio Conte would become the club’s new manager following completion of his Euro16 duties with the Azzurri. It was fair notice, allowing the Italian to focus on the tournament without distraction and Federcalcio time to identify a replacement. Although Real Madrid’s announcement that they had retained Julen Lopetegui as their next boss came only two days before the tournament kicks off and three before a critical opening fixture for Spain against European champions Portugal, it seemed the best timing possible for all involved this time, as well.
Lopetegui could focus on the tournament. Real Madrid supporters could watch it with renewed interest. Manchester United fans would have done so with renewed suspicion, as the former goalkeeper would have been in intimate contact with David de Gea, able to whisper in his ear about the wondrous life on offer at the Santiago Bernabeu for the next five weeks. The news may have further tightened the bond between the coach and the six current Merengues in his squad, allowing him to draw more from them. Finally, the RFEF would have time to recruit a new man in time to prepare for inaugural Nations League play in September.
Apparently, the RFEF wanted more time, and to have been kept in the loop regarding the negotiations between Lopetegui and Real Madrid. Chafed that they were not, federation president Luis Rubiales sacked Lopetegui today. To say the least, it throws Spain's bid to win a second World Cup in three cycles into serious jeopardy. Rubiales attempted to claim the high ground.
The federation cannot be left outside the negotiation of one of its employees, and find out just five minutes before a public announcement. If anybody wants to talk to one of our employees, they have to speak to us too, that is basic, as this is the team of all Spaniards. The national team is the most important we have, the World Cup is the biggest of all.
Really, Rubiales' are the words of a jilted lover. If the national team was preeminent, it would pay the bills, own the players, and not borrow them from the clubs who do. The economic reality is that the Spanish national team is nothing without La Liga's top clubs, including Real Madrid. The World Cup is a quadrennial sideshow. If the RFEF can use clubs' players, sometimes against their club's wishes, then the clubs should be able to recruit coaches and executives without the RFEF's permission. There is a price for everything.
Rubiales has chosen to pay a much higher one than necessary. He sugarcoated that, too.
Maybe this is tough now, but in the end it will make us stronger.
It will not. The players are unsettled, having lost a coach they trusted and with whom they came into the tournament undefeated. Win or lose, any future candidate will think twice about accepting the national team job if it limits their prospects to move to a top club when the opportunity arises. It will be an absolute miracle if Spain wins this World Cup for the simple fact that pride comes before the fall.
If anyone is stronger, it is Real Madrid. They now have their new boss with immediate effect. Previously, Lopetegui would not have been on hand to offer input into new transfer business until late July. Now he is, thank you very much. Of course, Los Blancos are three-time defending Champions League winners. Despite all the Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo rumours, it’s likely they intended to stand pat this summer.
However, if those rumours are true, Lopetegui may very well be the man Real need to take them forward. The Basque has ties to the club, like Zidane before him, coaching RM Castilla, the club’s youth side, before guiding Spain’s youth sides from 2010-14. He understands young players, even if his time at Porto was inconsistent. Moreover, his unbeaten record with La Furia indicates he can also communicate with privileged egos, Rubiales excepted.
If Bale and/or Ronaldo depart, he will be a welcome sight for younger players like Marco Asensio. The gifted winger has reportedly received an offer from Chelsea, although it has not been finalised. Announcing Lopetegui’s appointment gives the Madridistas a negotiating edge in the bidding war for Asensio’s services. The player can now expect a known and welcome commodity as boss at one club. The other? Not so much. All it takes is one text to former teammate Alvaro Morata to learn Chelsea is not the place, nor Antonio Conte, if he stays, the manager for young players.
Lopetegui’s hiring also offers a more amenable parting with older players such as Ronaldo, Bale or Karim Benzema. Both player[s] and club can optimistically claim it was time to strike a new path if either party decides the time has come. Mutual respect and admiration at the end are not just respectful, it protects a player’s value in the market. The RFEF could have chosen this road with Lopetegui themselves, even if they felt slighted at not being informed of the presumably hasty negotiation sooner. It would have protected their chances in this tournament. A few choice words both behind the scenes and in the press would have warned future bosses to be more forthcoming.
Another thing to keep in mind is that even under Zidane, Real Madrid has always been a player’s club. Zizou was a boss who brooked no argument, no doubt, but that is what he was as a player, too. He never stopped being one of the lads and, outside the club president’s office, the Bernabeu’s greatest power lies in its heart: the clubhouse.
Florentino Perez undoubtedly surveyed his players when considering Lopetegui. He listened to Sergio Ramos [and San Iker] when Jose Mourinho was boss. He likely heard them when times became stressful under Rafa Benitez and, for that matter, Zizou, the players having confidence in one boss, if not the other. His captain, along with Dani Carvajal, Isco, Nacho and youngsters Asensio and Lucas Vazquez could all offer opinions on the national team manager’s suitability. There is no reason to suspect any have reason to doubt him as a coach.
Of course, this remains RM, which stands equally for Real Madrid and Ruthless Masters. Julen Lopetegui will be on a shorter leash than Zidane. Starting the 2018/19 campaign in the sluggish manner his predecessor did last season won’t be tolerated. There will be no patience. Guti, among others, will be waiting in the wings. If that occurs, Luis Rubiales will only look more the fool.