Julen Lopetegui’s late exit has left Spain’s World Cup plans in chaos.
On Wednesday morning, Spain’s footballing public woke up to troubling headlines: Real Madrid had announced the day before that Julen Lopetegui, the manager of the Spain national team, would be the club’s new coach, following the departure of Zinedine Zidane a couple of weeks earlier.
Fans were shocked at the timing of the announcement, which was only two days before the FIFA World Cup was due to start in Russia. The media cranked into gear. Diario AS, one of the country’s daily sports newspapers, ran with an explosive headline on Wednesday, under a picture of Real Madrid and Spain team captain Sergio Ramos with his arm around Lopetegui: “A huge cannonball at the national team.”
And then it got worse. Mid-morning Wednesday in Spain, the news filtered through from Russia that Lopetegui had been fired as national coach. There was no indication as to who would be replacing him. Rumours were rife. In a land divided by its loyalties to club teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona, this was toxic. The World Cup was a day away. Germany’s coach, Joachim Low, admitted it was a “bombshell.”
“When I first heard the news, I thought it was an urban myth developing,” said Madrid-born writer and journalist Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football. “I couldn’t believe it. Then it hit me that it was true. Things couldn’t have been handled in a more spectacularly worse way. It is unbelievable—Real Madrid making their announcement two days before a crucial competition, risking destabilising the entire Spain squad. No one can get their heads around it. Everyone is speculating. It’s a complete dog’s dinner.
“It’s a reminder to us. At Barca, Leo Messi calls the shots; at Real Madrid, there’s one person who calls the shots more than anyone else—Florentino Perez, the club’s president, and he’s done it again. This will have gone down like a lead balloon among many Real Madrid supporters who are also quite patriotic and support the national squad and who are looking forward to Spain doing well in the World Cup.”
In Catalonia, which is torn in half by a political movement regarding secession from Spain, the news that the national team had plunged into crisis was greeted with barely disguised glee. Barca fans are ambivalent at best about the Spain team, even though its starting XI includes star Barcelona players Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and club icon Andres Iniesta.
“Everything that happens with the national team, we think of it through the prism of the clubs,” said Inako Diaz-Guerra, a journalist with El Mundo. “The m