Julen Lopetegui during a training session with the Spanish national team this month. He had agreed to become coach of Real Madrid, the reigning European club champions and one of the world's biggest teams, after the World Cup.CreditSusana Vera/ ...
MOSCOW — Spain, one of the favorites to win the World Cup, found itself in disarray just two days before its first game of the competition, after the country’s soccer federation fired Coach Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday, despite fervent protests from his players.
Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish soccer federation, the R.F.E.F, said at a news conference that he had no choice but to remove Lopetegui, 51, after it emerged a day earlier that he would replace Zinedine Zidane as coach of Real Madrid after the World Cup.
Fernando Hierro, the national team’s technical director, will replace Lopetegui for the duration of the tournament.
The Spanish federation agreed a few weeks ago to extend Lopetegui’s contract until 2020, but Rubiales said that he was forced to renege because the coach had negotiated his move — not unusual in itself — without informing his employer.
“The negotiation occurred without the federation having any information,” Rubiales said from the team’s training facility in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, suggesting he had been informed of the news just five minutes before the news was made public. “We have a way of behaving that needs to be adhered to.”
Reports in Spain suggested that Lopetegui’s agent, Carlos Bucero, had reached an agreement with Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez, late last week. Several members of the Spanish squad were made aware of the appointment, news reports said, forcing Lopetegui and Real to make an announcement on Tuesday.
The move caught Rubiales by surprise, and he immediately flew from Moscow — where he was expected to cast Spain’s vote to determine who would host the 2026 World Cup — to Krasnodar, to meet with Lopetegui and Hierro. In his absence, Spain did not cast a vote.
On Wednesday morning, a delegation of senior players from the Spanish squad, including Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, met with Rubiales.
They, too, had been taken by surprise. The team, which has several players from Real Madrid as well as from its fierce rival in the Spanish league, Barcelona, had officially been told about Lopetegui only before a training session on Tuesday.
The players urged Rubiales to “swallow his pride” and let Lopetegui remain as coach, to avoid disrupting the team’s preparations, according to reports.
Rubiales, however, was unmoved. At noon in Krasnodar, he appeared in front of journalists and announced that Lopetegui had been dismissed. He insisted that he did not feel “betrayed” by the coach, but said the talks had not been handled professionally.
“The federation cannot be kept outside the negotiations for one of its employees,” he said. “You cannot do things like that, just five minutes before the announcement is made.”
He did not blame Lopetegui for the turmoil, describing him as a “very good coach, a man of professional integrity who has done an excellent job,” and was not drawn into a discussion about Real Madrid’s conduct: One Spanish sports newspaper on Wednesday morning described the timing of the announcement as a “missile” to the national team.
Real Madrid — winner of Europe’s most prestigious club competition, the Champions League, for the last three years — will pay the Spanish soccer federation 2 million euros, or about $2.35 million, in compensation.
“I know there will be criticism, whatever I do,” Rubiales said. “It is a very difficult situation. The Spain team is the team of all Spaniards. You cannot do things this way, two or three days before the World Cup. We have been obliged to make this decision.”
Lopetegui — who did not lose any of the 20 games he oversaw as Spanish coach, and won 14 of them — has spent time as both a player and a coach at Real Madrid, first as a goalkeeper and later in charge of Castilla, its B team.
He has spent much of his managerial career working for the Spanish federation, rising to prominence for his work with Spain’s youth squads. His only previous top-level experience as a club coach came with F.C. Porto of Portugal, where he lasted less than two years. He failed to win the league title, and was fired.
Hierro, his emergency replacement, has an equally thin coaching résumé, though his playing career was significantly more stellar: He won three Champions League trophies and five Spanish championships in more than a decade as a player at Real Madrid. His only managerial experience, though, came at Real Oviedo, in Spain’s second tier.
Rubiales had said he wanted to create as little disruption as possible to Spain’s preparations; it plays Portugal on Friday in Sochi. Hierro’s familiarity with the squad, and the fact he has been involved in the buildup to the tournament, worked in his favor.
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