It was supposed to be a happy reunion and a dream come true, yet it was five in the afternoon on Tuesday when Real Madrid shocked the footballing world, confirming Julen Lopetegui as Zinedine Zidane’s successor. Twenty-four hours later, he left Krasnodar to complete his return to Madrid but not in the manner we had all come to expect, that is, as a hero. Instead, he touched down in the Spanish capital on the morning of the World Cup’s opening game and was escorted from a black van like a criminal, a villain.
Some would say a traitor, too. Whatever you prefer to call him, there’s no doubt this is the darkest point of the 51-year-old’s coaching career - and one of the lowest in Spanish football as a whole as it scrambled to appoint the legendary Fernando Hierro in his place for the Russian showpiece - where you can bet on football.
Marca called it ‘Mano de Hierro’ – or ‘iron fist’ – a play on words as the axe came crashing down, dubbing the ‘Krasnodar crisis’ the worst 19 hours in the history of the Spanish national team. Meanwhile, the former goalkeeper could do little but lick his wounds, admitting the nuisance was ‘very sad’.
His choice of words was particularly telling, considering the adjectives being thrown around three weeks ago when Lopetegui was duly rewarded with a contract extension, taking him to 2020.
The ex-Porto boss had taken over from Vicente del Bosque following an early exit from Euro 2016, guiding the side to an 18-match unbeaten run, securing World Cup qualification with ease. Under his tutelage, La Roja showed tactical flexibility and discipline, rejuvenating a team who had become jaded from their success.
"We’re very happy with what we have done so far,” he said. “We've worked very hard in the last two years and we’ll continue to do so.” RFEF President Luis Rubiales concurred, adding: “It’s a happy day. We have much hope for the World Cup with him, knowing it’s difficult and that he only has a guarantee for three games… but with him, everything is possible."
Now, however, many are suggesting that a second World Cup is almost impossible. Their campaign seems to be in tatters even before a ball has been kicked.
There’s an argument to be made that Rubiales’ reaction may have been over the top, that he should’ve let it slide and allowed Lopetegui to continue at the behest of the nation’s most senior players. The new man at the helm of Spanish football, though, felt he had to act.
Following decades of scandal, Rubiales’ presidential campaign was based on the need for systematic reform. In many ways, his decision to sack the head Coach two days before their opening match is the realisation of his objective – that results should never get in the way of acting with integrity, even if it means jeopardising the campaign to win world football’s most coveted prize.
If anything, it should be seen as a sign of strong leadership, acting proactively when most would’ve preferred a pragmatic approach. It proved, too, that he was not prepared to let the Spanish FA get bullied by the arrogance of Spain’s elite, at least not under his watch.
“Lopetegui has been a great Coach,” he said. “But we can’t accept this behaviour, we only found about his decision [to join Madrid] five minutes before the announcement. This has been done without our knowledge. I don’t feel betrayed. But this is how it must be.”
Lost amongst the crisis, though, is the fate of Lopetegui, who will undoubtedly be remembered for his part in one of Spanish football’s darkest days. Softly spoken as he may be, his failure to inform Rubiales of negotiations prior to the announcement will be interpreted as weakness on his part. And even though he has finally sealed a move to a job which will undoubtedly pay more, the 51-year-old has missed out on an opportunity to return to Real Madrid as a national hero, his dream turning into his worst nightmare in just 19 hours.
Nevertheless, without him, Spain’s hopes of winning remain in the balance – they certainly have the experience and the discipline to move on from this. But the biggest winner from this will be Rubiales, who has shown he is no push-over. And the future of Spanish football will be better for it.