Players, fans cheated by Spain’s moment of madness

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One of the miracles of modern football has been how the poisonous politics of Spanish football have largely been quarantined from the national team over the past decade. That is, of course, until now.

Unbelievably, Spain sacked manager Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday, just 48 hours before their opening 2018 FIFA World Cup clash with Portugal.

Why was he sacked? Because it was announced that he had signed to take over Real Madrid after the tournament.

It’s not uncommon for bosses to have futures sorted pre-World Cup – both Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek had already confirmed their move to Russia and Morocco’s under-23‘s respectively in 2006 and 2010 – but Spain is a vastly different animal.

The Spanish Football Federaton is forever wedged between Castilian and Catalonian sensitivities, whilst trying to accommodate those of Basques and Andalusians, among others.

And while the federation is often thought to be pro-Real Madrid, the nerve of the capital club to sign the national team manager, without consulting the national federation, was considered tantamount to high treason.

It is said that Madrid president Florentino Perez told federation president Luis Rubiales just five minutes before the announcement went public. A sign of modern football, perhaps, where clubs call the shots.

Rubiales was shocked. So were the players but they pleaded with the president to let the manager see out the tournament. After all, what good would it serve to cull him at this juncture?

But Rubiales channelled his inner John Kerr, the Governer-General who sacked Gough Whitlam in 1975. Exactly how much consultation took place before the trigger was pulled is unclear.

Rubiales seemed so personally affronted that he wanted instant revenge. The club’s conduct is questionable but the federation’s reply was unconscionable.

And if you haven’t heard of Rubiales, an ex-players’ union boss, that’s because he only picked up the job in May after a modest playing career, one that finished in Scotland in 2009. His decision to wield executive power as freely as one swings a butter knife at breakfast is utterly staggering.

There is a time and place to show one’s strength but this was not it. The timing reveals impossibly poor judgement.

These tournaments are often scenes of epic bust-ups – think Ireland in 2002 and France in 2010 – but never has a coach been laid off this close to a ball being kicked.

There are so many hands on so many levers in Spanish football, with push and pull factors everywhere, that have largely been contained for the good of La Roja.

Alas, it could not last. The decision to sack coach Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament still requires some serious processing – and the ramifications are both immediate and long-lasting.

Firstly, it has ruined Spain’s chances of winning this tournament. One of the favourites coming into the month, with a glut of young talent added to some veteran leaders, they suddenly look like the event’s biggest “sell” stock.

Unity is the most essential ingredient in a World Cup run and this Spanish squad, a fragile beast at the best of times, will have splintered into a thousand pieces. Added to Iran and Morocco, it isn’t the strongest group, but nothing is assured now.

And yet the twists don’t stop there. Fernando Hierro, one of Real Madrid’s greatest players, and Lopetegui’s assistant, has just been elevated as his replacement.

His senior managerial experience? A season at Segunda División side Real Oviedo in 2016-17, guiding them into eighth. A great manager he may become but you’d have to question his credentials.

And who will most likely be the greatest beneficiary? Probably Portugal – and therefore Real Madrid’s greatest son, Cristiano Ronaldo. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Without a ball being kicked, this World Cup has already delivered a moment we’ll never forget.

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