Ken Early: Spain become victims of managerial fiasco

Real mess as Madrid end up with national pariah Julen Lopetegui at the helm

Throughout his two years as coach of the Spanish national team, Julen Lopetegui often came across as a bland bureaucrat – exactly the type of federation-friendly Organisation Man that has come to dominate the international coaching scene.

If his persona had been unremarkable, his work had been unimpeachable: 20 matches, zero defeats. On May 22nd, the Spanish FA (RFEF) announced that Lopetegui had extended his contract until 2020.

The newly-elected RFEF president Luis Rubiales was not the man who had hired Lopetegui in the first place, but the decision to renew the contract affirmed his trust in the coach.

So it came as something of a surprise on Tuesday when a statement from Real Madrid announced that Lopetegui would take over as their new coach at the end of the World Cup. The announcement did not come as a complete surprise to Rubiales. Florentino Perez had apparently called to give him the news five minutes before Real Madrid announced it to the world.


Still, the story was hardly a global sensation. International manager has club job lined up for after tournament? Is that really news? The wider world reacted with indifference.

Of more significance was the reaction of Luis Rubiales. He had only been president since the middle of May. Lopetegui’s new contract had been his first big achievement, and now the coach’s double-dealing had landed him with his first crisis.

Early on Wednesday it was reported that the incandescent president had flown south from Moscow to Krasnodar to handle the situation, even though this meant he would miss Wednesday’s Fifa Congress.

Spanish media spent the morning speculating that he would use the scheduled press conference to announce Lopetegui’s sacking. It was hard to give these rumblings too much credit at the time. If losing the coach after the World Cup was a problem, losing him two days before the World Cup would surely be a bigger one.

You could see why Rubiales was angry. It’s always risky for the president of an international sports body to renew the manager’s contract before a tournament. What if the team flops and everyone suddenly wants the manager sacked? Rubiales had given that trust to Lopetegui, and he didn’t like how he had been repaid, but was he really furious enough to sack him?

In any bureaucracy with public accountability, the minds of top administrators are invariably preoccupied with the question of blame and how to avoid it. As of Tuesday night, the faithless Lopetegui was in line to take all the blame if Spain fail at this World Cup. Many administrators in Rubiales’ position would have seen this as a silver lining to the disappointment, and moved on.

It turns out that Rubiales is not that sort of administrator. Shortly before 1pm on Wednesday, he confirmed he had fired Lopetegui. Fernando Hierro will now take charge for the tournament.

Not correct

“We are forced to move on this because of how things have been done. This is not correct and we can’t look the other way. You can’t do things like that, five minutes before it’s official.”

The way Rubiales saw it, Lopetegui’s chicanery had left him with two bad options. Would he rather look weak, or crazy? He chose crazy. Now, if Spain fail, his impetuosity will be blamed. He accepts that as the price of preserving his credibility.

“Because of my responsibility, I know that whatever I do, there will be criticism,” he said.

There is an echo of the dynamics that underlay Mick McCarthy's decision to send Roy Keane home from the 2002 World Cup. Like McCarthy, Rubiales simply could not bear the insult of being treated with such a lack of respect, and grim though the consequences might be, he felt he had to defend his honour.

The talk had been that the players were in favour of letting Lopetegui stay on. The players would say that. They weren’t the ones who had been made to look foolish. And even if some of them had been annoyed by Lopetegui joining Madrid, it would be unusual for them to agitate for his sacking.

Rubiales must now hope that these players are so experienced they can take the fiasco in their stride. Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva all have more than 100 caps, Gerard Pique has 98. If any team can be self-managing, it's surely this one.

Even for 100-cap Spanish World Cup winners, the sacking must have come as a shock. It certainly came as a shock to Lopetegui, who had plainly expected to be allowed to continue. He can now look forward to being called a traitor by the half of Spain that is not already laughing at him.

Lopetegui's downfall was ultimately of his own making, yet he also deserves sympathy. Consider the circumstances of Madrid's offer. He knew he was not their first choice. That was Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, who turned them down on the basis that he had only recently renewed his contract.

So had Lopetegui, of course. But Pochettino could reject Perez knowing that, in all likelihood, his chance would come again. Lopetegui did not have that luxury. For a coach whose biggest achievement in club football was failing to win a trophy in two seasons at Porto, this must have seemed like a one-time-only offer. It may even have been presented to him as such.

So he snatched at the opportunity, and in so doing may have cost himself two jobs: the one he has lost, and the one in which he now sets out as a deeply damaged figure.

Perez expected to be hiring the respected leader of an honourable Spanish World Cup campaign, not a national pariah or a walking meme. Real Madrid is a club that chews up and spits out coaches, and this one already tastes a little off.