They'd been there for a while when the call came through to tell them they were standing in the wrong place. Raphaël Varane's handball had actually been in the area, VAR decided, so instead of a free-kick it was a penalty, which was why just 14 minutes into this weekend's opening game, Levante were 2-0 up at the Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid heading for another defeat and Roger Martí heading for the south-west corner, celebrating. On the opposite touchline Madrid's manager stood motionless, hands in his pockets, gone. A few rows above, at that precise moment, someone tapped the president on the shoulder and gave him a phone. Florentino Pérez took it, looked at the screen, lifted it to his ear, and a million memes were born: bring me the head of Julen Lopetegui.
Monday is Lopetegui’s 131st day as manager of Madrid. It may also be his last. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but one day and soon, he will be sacked. The same lack of alternatives and time that helped put him in the job in the first place are all that keep him in the job. It’s not easy to find the man to replace him or the moment to do it: Madrid play in the Champions League on Tuesday; on Sunday they face Barcelona. That match – the first clásico without Messi or Ronaldo for a decade – becomes even more of a defining moment than usual, a reason both to wait and to act: in some odd way, the only thing as bad as losing to Barcelona is beating them with Lopetegui still there. Let the clásico decide, sure, but what if it decides the wrong thing?
So, let’s just check … yep, still there. Or maybe not by the time you read this. But for now there he is, wearing shades, leading training in the sunshine, even though he knows Madrid have suspected he was the wrong man for a while and became even more convinced this weekend – it’s not just that faith is lost, and with remarkable speed, that’s a recurring problem; it’s that the lack of faith is shared, conveyed through public voices, increasing the pressure and widening fault lines; that preferences are pushed and players are swiftly aware, losing faith as he loses authority.
There's another, fundamental reason. Foundational, in fact: there wasn't that much faith to start with. And since then the accusations against Lopetegui have accumulated, some familiar themes: he didn't play 18-year-old Vinícius Júnior; he was indulgent of a squad some in power mistrust, Sergio Ramos particularly; the team are not in great physical condition; he has rotated Keylor Navas and Thibaut Courtois; and failed to define a starting XI. Saturday's team – no Bale, Benzema, or Kroos, Vinícius not in the squad – was especially striking, like the last gesture of a condemned man. On the touchline in Vitoria he ranted, wild as his team lost to Alavés; this time he seemed resigned to it, no fight left. Only there he is now, saying he will "fight".
There was no other way. Time became too tight. It's only nine weeks into the season but the regret at some levels of the club now is having waited this long. Meanwhile, names continue to emerge – it's a fortnight since Antonio Conte was called. He has a court case with Chelsea pending, and soon. Persuading Zinedine Zidane to return is an idea some clung to; someone like him, from within, is another. Xabi Alonso and Raúl don't yet have the full qualifications, but could join an experienced coach. Santiago Solari, in charge at Castilla, does. Roberto Martínez, Michael Laudrup, Laurent Blanc, the list goes on (how long before Jogi Löw and Arsène Wenger join it?)
The need grows more pressing, too. When Varane handled the ball the ball on Saturday, he requested the referee look again, hoping he would change his mind. VAR looked at the scene, not the crime, offering up a lesson that things can always get worse, and for Madrid they have. Beaten in Seville, beaten in Moscow, beaten in Vitoria, they were beaten again by Levante. There’s been an impotence about them, a fatalism that grows with each minute: worse and worse. When Marcelo scored on Saturday it finally ended a wait that had felt eternal: it was their first goal for eight hours and one minute, supposedly the longest drought in their entire history until someone finally noticed one of the games during their previous “best” in 1985 had gone to extra time.
This then, isn’t the worst Madrid ever, after all. It’s still bad, though. “This team is in ruins,” ran the cover of Marca on Sunday. AS called it a “total write-off”. Marcelo’s goal, with 18 minutes left, 13 minutes short of that actual record, was their first in a month, and it proved worthless. Defeated again, Madrid have lost three in a row and four of their last five – and they didn’t win the fifth either, a 0-0 draw with Atlético. Even the game before that run, their 1-0 win over Espanyol, hadn’t impressed. The one before that, by contrast, really had: their 3-0 win over Roma suggested a new identity could be forged, only to be quickly forgotten. Lopetegui has lost as many competitive games as he has won. He has five defeats in his 12 games in charge.
A post-World Cup season often poses extra problems. Lopetegui did not get the players he wanted: there was no replacement for Mateo Kovacic or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose importance may even have been underestimated. There have been injuries. With Neymar the only player they were prepared to spend big on and the realities of the market shifting, the squad has got weaker over the last three years – even if it is certainly strong enough to be better than this. This season has been bad, but it's not so out of keeping with last season, when they finished 17 points behind Barcelona. At this point last year, week nine, they had been beaten by Betis and held by Valencia and Levante; in week 10 Girona beat them. Barcelona won the clásico 3-0.
Lopetegui has talked about “a culmination of misfortune”: if it wasn’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. There may be something in that even if it doesn’t entirely convince and his Madrid career was born under a bad sign, that’s for sure. This goes back to the beginning, and beyond – the inception of it all. That everything has happened quickly shouldn’t hide the fact that it runs deep.
Life comes at you fast. Barely seconds after Madrid won their third consecutive European Cup, before they'd even collected the trophy, Ronaldo said he was going. A few minutes later, Gareth Bale said he might be too. Before either of them actually had, Zinedine Zidane did. Five days after Kiev, he resigned. In part because he could, but there was a warning there too: he spoke of the need for a change. He knew there were problems, knew that this was unsustainable. Ronaldo did leave, taking more than goals with him; Inter hoped Modric would follow.
Sitting alongside him, Pérez looked defeated. He had not expected this. During the previous season he had expressed doubts about Zidane, and those whispers had reached his manager, but there had been no plans for this to happen, no expectation that he would resign. Thrust into a situation they had not foreseen, Madrid were under pressure and in a hurry with no candidate and nowhere to turn. They needed to get a manager and announce him, to fill the void and reduce the uncertainty. Mauricio Pochettino couldn't leave Spurs. Max Allegri turned it down: follow Zidane? No thanks. Jürgen Klopp was impossible. Löw too. Few doors were open and those that were swiftly closed.
Lopetegui was some way down the list – fifth, sixth, maybe lower – and was about to lead Spain into the World Cup. He was in Russia, two days before the tournament began, when Madrid announced it, the new Federation president Luis Rubiales, under intense pressure too, furiously claiming he'd been given just five minutes' warning, not even afforded the margin to minimise the damage. The cost for the coach was colossal. Rubiales flew south, stayed up all night, and sacked Lopetegui the next day, sending him home in silence, barely able to believe it had played out like this. The following day, he was presented at Madrid: there was an hour's difference between the press conference he gave in Spain and the one he had been supposed to give, 3,569km away in Sochi.
“Yesterday the saddest day of my life; today is the happiest,” Lopetegui said. It would for ever be difficult to disassociate the two days, divorce one from the other. He thought the chance to manage Madrid would never come again; the chance to manage Spain at the World Cup certainly won’t, and even back then it was easy, if cruel, to envisage a moment six months further down the line when he was inevitably sacked at Madrid and wondered: I gave up all that for this?! His might have been the chronicle of a death foretold; what few imagined was the story would quite so quickly unfold.
Lopetegui knew the risk, but embraced the opportunity. Momentarily, he appeared to be winning. Over the last month, though, Madrid began losing, defeats racking up, the sense of impotence growing with every missed chance. On Saturday there were 34 of them: they hit the bar, the post and the goalkeeper. By then, that seemed almost inevitable, like fatalism had taken over; like it wasn’t just the Levante players standing in the wrong place, it was him too – and even if he will probably be standing there again on Tuesday night, he knows it could be the last time. “I have more energy than ever,” he said on Saturday, but his words were empty; “if you’re looking for a sunken man, don’t look at me,” he said on Monday, but that’s what most had seen two days before. It was as if he already knew; as if they all did.
“We’re with the manager to the death,” Sergio Ramos and Marcelo said. The question is: whose death? The answer, they know, is his. – Guardian service