Madrid (AFP) – The surprise sacking of Spain’s undefeated coach Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday, just two days before their opening World Cup game, was met with dismay and worry in the football-mad country.
The Spanish Football Federation’s announcement that it had replaced Lopetegui with sporting director Fernando Hierro dominated headlines, bumping a court order giving Spanish King Felipe VI’s brother-in-law five days to enter jail to serve a sentence for graft from the front pages of the online editions of most newspapers.
Spain, the winners of the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, were among the favourites to win the tournament this year in Russia, but many Spaniards expressed fears that Lopetegui’s departure would derail the team’s chances.
“On the one hand, sacking Lopetegui is bad, on the other it is bad as well,” Juan Jose Borrego, a 23-year-old IT administrator and Real Madrid supporter, told AFP near Real’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
“Even though things were done badly now I think Lopetegui should have stayed on. We still have great chances because we have really good players but…I don’t see us winning the World Cup after this issue.”
– ‘Bad solutions’ –
Lopetegui’s dismissal came in response to the news announced Tuesday that he had agreed to take over coaching duties at Real Madrid after the World Cup, replacing Zinedine Zidane who announced his surprise resignation on May 31.
The president of the federation, Luis Rubiales, insisted that he had little choice but to terminate Lopetegui’s contract as a matter of principle after the coach negotiated with Real behind their backs.
“Of all the bad solutions, this is the worst. We are embarrassing ourselves in front of everybody,” the director of sports daily As, Alfredo Relano, told AFP when asked about the federation’s move.
The federation should have waited until after the World Cup to replace Lopetegui, who signed a contract extension until 2020 just last month and never tasted defeat in his 20 games in charge as Spain boss.
He said Rubiales had “reacted viscerally” and accused Real Madrid of “firing a cannon-shot against the national team” with their announcement on Tuesday that they had hired Lopetegui.
Real Madrid “got nervous, they resolved their problem and passed the problem on to the national team,” Relano added.
“Real have a symbolic status, it is exaggerating a little to say that they are a key national institution. An attack by Real against the national team is received very badly.”
If Catalan side Barcelona had done the same “we would almost think it was nationalist sabotage” against the national team, said Relano.
– ‘Offended lady’ –
Spain are due to face European champions Portugal in Sochi on Friday before taking on Iran and Morocco in Group B at the World Cup.
Spain and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos sought to reassure fans that the last minute change in coach had not hurt team spirit, insisting on Twitter that the squad was as committed as ever.
“We are the national team. We represent a badge, colours, a fanbase, a country. The responsibility and commitment are with and for you. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, together,” tweeted Ramos.
Former Barcelona and Spain star Xavi Hernandez defended Rubiales, telling sports daily Marca the federation head had “reacted well”.
“He thought of the federation which must always come before people,” Hernandez added.
The federation and Rubiales behaved like an “offended lady” instead of thinking of what would be best for Spain, said Maria Angeles Lopez, a 65-year-old retired office administrator.
“They should have opted for what is best for Spain and what was that? Not giving this blow which has turned everything upside down. Either way it will end well for them. If the new coach does well they will say: ‘See Lopetegui was not needed.” And if he does badly it will be Lopetegui’s fault.”