Sergio Ramos bemoans 'funeral' atmosphere as Spain kick off
Fernando Hierro steps into the unknown after sacking of national manager Julen Lopetegui
The way these things usually work, the player does his bit then is allowed to leave for training, but Sergio Ramos would never feel comfortable willingly abandoning the centre stage. He started his performance at the pre-match press conference here at the Fisht Olympic stadium in Sochi with a professionally impassioned plea to consign the dramatic events of the previous 24 hours to history.
Good luck with that, Sergio.
When that didn’t work, he talked about the part that Julen Lopetegui would still be any Spanish success over the next few weeks here in Russia and how Fernando Hierro - sitting beside him on the stage - was nevertheless the perfect replacement. He then suddenly wrapped things up, announcing he wanted to leave as: “it feels as though we are in a funeral when in fact we are about to start a World Cup”.
Beside him, Fernando Hierro may well have been relieved at the opportunity to depart prematurely himself. If it felt like a funeral, it was a particularly warm and sweaty one. The atmosphere was intense too and the 50 year-old had barely said a word, although that was in part because the questions are generally directed at the player until he leaves.
Outside, a few minutes later, he could be seen addressing all of the players out on the pitch as they huddled around him. Ramos, their captain, joined in but he may have some bridges to rebuild with his teammates after it emerged that he had gone out on a limb for the new man’s predecessor, Julen Lopetegui, only to discover that the departing manager did not enjoy anything like the support he expected.
Spanish federation president, Luis Rubiales, is said to have consulted all of the players but when Ramos angrily confronted him over his intention to fire the coach, Gerrard Pique, it is claimed, had to separate the two men. Quite a few of the other squad members apparently reflected on the fact that Lopetegui would routinely implore them to put all thoughts of their club careers to one side when representing their country.
Ramos was vague, deliberately so it seemed, on the question of whether he had any more advanced knowledge of the impending appointment than his teammates, or the Spanish federation officials, but claimed it was an irrelevance.
“Players don’t make these decisions, others do. Players focus on the playing side of things and do their talking on the pitch so to speak. I don’t know if anyone has made a mistake but everyone will have their own opinion. It is better now if they all keep them to themselves.”
Within minutes of training getting underway, though, Lopetegui was being unveiled in Madrid as the new manager of Real. In what will doubtless go down as one of the most remarkable unveilings in the history of Spanish club football, the 51 year-old cried at one point as he claimed that: “Yesterday was, after the death of my mother, possibly the saddest day of my life, but today is the happiest.”
Some especially loyal fans had been invited to lift the mood and remind the nation that there are some who see the appointment, perhaps even its timing, as a cause for celebration. Behind them, some of the journalists openly jeered Lopetegui, though, while their more critical questions were, it was reported in turn, treated with hostility by the supporters.
“We wanted to do this after the World Cup, ” claimed Real president Florentino Perez, “but a series of circumstances have made us be here, and with the excitement of a new era. It’s an enormous satisfaction to present someone who perfectly knows this house.”
Hierro, as it happens, knows both pretty well too, and his record of more than 400 appearances for Real may play a small part in smoothing over some of the cracks which have appeared in the Spanish set-up during the build-up to Friday evening’s game against Portugal.
Having lost their opener badly to the Netherlands four years ago, before exiting after a defeat to Chile, Spain do not need to be reminded of how high the stakes are this time around. Hierro, in reaction to one of the three questions he was actually asked, sought to make a virtue of the fact it is simply too late for him to change anything of any real significance.
“We didn’t have much time to work with and so we are not going to change very much,” he said. “We have a very solid goal to work for. We have spent two weeks working hard to prepare for this World Cup and we have the same goal: to win. We have kept many of the same coaching staff, they are the same players so you will see a Spain that you are familiar with; a Spain team that likes to be the protagonist. We will not stray one iota from our concept.”
He may well be right on that score but games can be lost for all sorts of reasons - however only one will be considered as having been a factor if his side are beaten by the Portuguese.
Ramos, in the context of a question about his occasionally controversial playing style, insisted his conscience is clear: “I sleep easy at night.” But Rubiales, a former defender himself - briefly at Hamilton Academical - and former head of players’ union, who was only elected to the presidency of the federation last month, may have been doing a bit more tossing and turning since Wednesday.
There is more at stake for Spain here in Sochi than a mere three points. And the points, to be fair, are pretty important.