Guillem Balague: Why Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui before World Cup

Guillem Balague: Why Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui before World Cup

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Spain’s preparations for the World Cup have been thrown into disarray after they sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before their first match of the tournament against Portugal on Friday.

Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales made the decision to remove Lopetegui after it was announced on Tuesday that he would be taking over at Real Madrid following the World Cup.

Rubiales was unhappy to have only been made aware of the news five minutes before the official announcement from Real Madrid.

But what was behind the process in sacking Lopetegui? What will it mean for Spain’s chances in Russia? And what will his replacement Fernando Hierro bring? Sky Sports Spanish football expert Guillem Balague reveals all…

Why was the decision made?

“It’s not so much a football story as a personal story, that’s the fascinating thing about this. It’s not a football decision. Lopetegui has been with the national side for two years, he has in his mind what the best XI should be, the federation has talked about a process for many years…but if you go with the process then you keep Lopetegui and Rubiales gives him a slap on the wrist and says you should not have done it that way.

“The problem is that Real Madrid or Lopetegui did not tell Rubiales until five minutes before the announcement, and that is not the way to do things with Rubiales. From that moment, Rubiales felt this could not happen and it’s not the way to do things. He wants clear lines of what is right and wrong and he wants clear leadership at the top.

“A month ago, Rubiales said he wanted a clean federation, one that was strong, stronger than Real Madrid and Barcelona if necessary. Of course now he has had the opportunity to show that strength.

“On Friday, Real Madrid decided to go for Lopetegui. He left it all to his agent and once it was negotiated everything was decided on Monday, then on Tuesday everything gets announced and Rubiales finds out about it only five minutes before the announcement by Real Madrid. It’s a situation that the federation and Rubiales says should not happen. He said the key is that this will make the federation stronger, but right now it makes Spain much weaker.

What do the players think?

“Last night there was a lot of talk within the camp and this morning there was a press conference which was delayed by an hour because there was a meeting between Rubiales and Lopetegui which Sergio Ramos and Fernando Hierro also joined. Quite clearly Ramos felt he had to defend Lopetegui, who is going to be his manager at Real Madrid. He was talking about the process and how it’s been two years and decisions have been taken about who will play. Lopetegui had a clear idea of what he wanted to do.

“But Rubiales feels almost personal about this. I am not sure it’s a great idea if you take it so personally. Of course it’s something to discuss and argue but you hear most of the players saying ‘we want Lopetegui to stay, it’s been a two-year process. Yes this is a huge obstacle, how do we sort it out?’.

“One thing is leadership and another thing is to give orders. Leadership would have been a slap on the wrist and telling him you can’t do that, but Rubiales sees things very black and white. I had experience with him when he was the head of the trade union of footballers and if he did not agree with you then you could feel the fire in your direction.

“The players wanted Lopetegui to stay, especially the Real Madrid players and especially Ramos. They defended Lopetegui’s position, saying basically that in our situation it would be the same; if somebody like Real Madrid came in you cannot say no. Rubiales insisted ‘sorry, this is not the way to do things’. It’s a strong decision and it’s based on the fact that he didn’t know anything about the negotiations with Real Madrid.

“The thing that really upset Rubiales and made him furious is that he only found out about the decision five minutes before it was announced. But leadership would have been dealing with the situation and somehow making the federation win. If some of the players are telling you to keep the manager don’t you have to listen and swallow your pride a little?

“The players were offering their support but Rubiales was saying ‘no way, this is it, it’s not just about the World Cup, it’s about the future’. Whatever decision he took was going to be criticised.”

What will it mean for Spain?

“Keeping Lopetegui would have left Spain weak anyway, because he cannot ask the players to forget everything and say it’s all about the World Cup when he has been negotiating with Real Madrid. But now it leaves Spain headless.

“Players want everything to be calm and organised and with no doubts, they want to go to a World Cup just thinking about the games. There were little bits with Spain, little debates after the friendlies, like do we use a No 9, do we use David Silva on the right or left, if Sergio Busquets needs someone next to him and if he gets injured who replaces him…those now don’t seem like very important decisions but will have a huge impact on how the team performs.

“Lopetegui was a clear defender of Diego Costa to be the No 9. Now will whoever replaces him go with no striker or with Iago Aspas? That changes everything and the dynamic is affected, there is no doubt about that.”

What next?

“Fernando Hierro was absolutely crucial at the 2010 World Cup when Spain lost to Switzerland in their first game. He was director of football at the federation and he was the one calming everybody down and saying it’s just one game, there is still the opportunity to progress if we keep doing what we have been doing. He was the calm force of that camp. He has the respect of everybody and he was there and was part of the talk with Rubiales and Sergio Ramos and Lopetegui.

“You won’t see many changes in terms of the style but big decisions will have to be taken. Who plays with Busquets? Who plays as No 9 and where do you place Silva?

“It’s a strong team with strong personalities. It’s just two days before the Portugal game which doesn’t make life easy but I don’t think in the short term it will have too much of an effect and if Spain keep winning then it could help resolve any doubts. Now the focus is on the players to sort the situation which they haven’t caused.”

(c) Sky News 2018: Guillem Balague: Why Spain sacked Julen Lopetegui before World Cup