Real Madrid has named Julen Lopetegui, the Spain coach, as Real Madrid’s new manager. His appointment came three days before his side kick off their World Cup campaign and it has been greeted with bewilderment and fury as the team’s preparations were thrown into chaos.
The announcement came as a huge slap in the face to Luis Rubiales, the Spanish Football Federation president, who handed Lopetegui a new contract until after Euro 2020, but the coach’s decision to walk away from the national team as soon as the World Cup ends is a huge blow to his authority.
In the meantime, the Federation imposed a blackout on players, forbidding them from speaking about the appointment.
The backlash against the announcement in Spain began with stinging editorials in two of the leading newspapers, which slammed the coach for causing a huge distraction for his squad and for negotiating the move when he should have been preparing for their opening game against Portugal in Sochi on Friday.
“Contracts in football may be made of plasticine but two days before a World Cup you cannot risk being seen as a pyromaniac in your own home. Coaches need to be leaders and the worst example they can set is putting themselves ahead of the group like this,” said El Pais.
Fellow broadsheet El Mundo braced itself for the prospect of Lopetegui being asked if he wanted to sign Neymar or sell Gareth Bale on the eve of a vital World Cup match and also attacked Real Madrid for undermining the national team.
“This is a crime against the state, against public order, because one club can never torpedo the flagship of Spanish football, which has always been the Spain team,” it said.
For the six Real Madrid players in Lopetegui’s World Cup squad, the thought that their national coach is about to become the main authority at their club is sure to weigh on their minds.
A former journeyman goalkeeper, who played one game for Real and, like Zidane, also coached their reserve team, Lopetegui has had scant experience at club level, with his only major job being an 18-month, trophy-less spell with Porto.
Indeed, before he took the Spain job in July 2016, he was in negotiations to take over at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Lopetegui has made the significant leap from almost taking the dugout at Molineux to the top job at the Santiago Bernabeu thanks to his excellent record with the national team, having turned the burned out side he inherited from Vicente del Bosque into one of the top candidates for the World Cup, going unbeaten in 20 games and enhancing the thrilling style of play which lead them to dominating international football between 2008 and 2012.
His careful management of the Spain dressing room and his close relationship with players such as Madrid’s Isco, Dani Carvajal, Marco Asensio and captain Sergio Ramos is also thought to have won him support at the Spanish aristocrats who turned to him once their top target Mauricio Pochettino was ruled out for his high price after signing a new deal with Tottenham.