Krasnodar (Russia) (AFP) – Spain’s World Cup preparations were thrown into turmoil on Wednesday as Real Madrid-bound coach Julen Lopetegui was fired on the eve of the tournament, just two days before their opening game in Russia.
In a bombshell development which followed the naming of Lopetegui as Real’s new coach on Tuesday, the Spanish federation confirmed that the 2019 World Cup winners had sacked their coach and replaced him with Fernando Hierro.
“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” said Hierro, who was already working for the Spanish federation as sporting director. “The objective is to fight for a World Cup. The players have been working towards this for two years.
“I’ve told the players that we have a wonderful, exciting challenge and we can’t let this be an excuse to distract us from our dream.”
Hierro appeared at a press conference alongside Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales, who had earlier delivered the news of his decision to fire Lopetegui despite reported resistance from the Spain players.
“Negotiating is legitimate but it took place without the RFEF being informed until five minutes before a press statement was released,” said Rubiales. “There has to be a message for all workers in the federation that there is a right way to do things.”
Lopetegui had signed a new contract until 2020 just last month.
“I am very sad but we have a magnificent team and hopefully we’ll win the World Cup,” Lopetegui told reporters on his departure from Spain’s training base in Krasnodar.
Hours later, Hierro, 50, was named as an emergency replacement despite having only one season’s managerial experience in the Spanish Second Division with Real Oviedo.
Spain are due to face European champions Portugal in Sochi on Friday before taking on Iran and Morocco in Group B.
– Players’ support –
There were fears Lopetegui’s appointment by the European champions could open up old divisions between the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions in the Spain squad.
For the first time since 2006, there are more players from Madrid in a Spanish squad for a major tournament, with a six-strong Real contingent and just Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets from Barca, as well as Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta, who ended his 16-year career at the Camp Nou last month.
“Lopetegui’s decision was inopportune, unexpected and rushed,” former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who won the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 with Spain, told Marca at a pre-tournament event in Moscow.
“It was a surprise for everyone but Rubiales reacted very well. He has looked after the federation, which should be above any individual.”
However, according to reports in the Spanish media, the players tried to intervene at the last minute to prevent Rubiales sacking Lopetegui.
Lopetegui, who took over in 2016, never tasted defeat in his 20 games as Spain boss.
“I have spoken with the players and what I can guarantee is that the players will do everything in their power, along with the new technical team, to take the team as far as possible,” said Rubiales.
Spain and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos appealed for unity between the fans and players.
“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.
La Roja were among the favourites to lift the trophy this summer but the astonishing developments of the past two days could have a devastating affect on their chances.
“It completely surprised me, I don’t know the background of the decision, but two days before the first World Cup game, it’s amazing,” said Germany coach Joachim Loew.
“There must certainly be unrest within the federation and the team.”
The Spanish drama came as the other 31 teams in the competition put the finishing touches to their preparations.
Hosts Russia kick off the extravaganza in Thursday’s opener in Group A in Moscow.
Elsehwere in Group A, all eyes were on Egypt star Mohamed Salah, who is racing to be fit in time for the Africans’ opener against Uruguay.
Salah injured a shoulder during last month’s Champions League final, and is battling to recover for Friday’s game in Yekaterinburg.
“There’s a good degree of progress but no definitive decision on whether he takes part, as we are following his case day by day,” team director Ihab Lahita told reporters.