The Spanish football federation sensationally sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup finals on Tuesday, furious that their unbeaten coach had done a deal behind its back to join Real Madrid.
The president of the Spanish FA (RFEF) Luis Rubiales went head to head with Madrid and is understood to have faced down attempts by the club’s players in the national team to save the job of Lopetegui, a former Under-21s manager and friend of Gareth Southgate.
In one of the most extraordinary pre-tournament rows in the history of the World Cup finals, Rubiales, a former head of the Spanish players’ union, cited Madrid’s lack of respect shown to the RFEF. He said he was told of Lopetegui’s decision to join Madrid after the World Cup just five minutes before the club made the announcement on Tuesday.
Rubiales said that he had become aware that while negotiations between Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez and Lopetegui had progressed, senior players were kept in the loop but the RFEF was neither informed by the club nor their erstwhile coach. Speaking about the matter Rubiales said: “Who was contacting them? It’s obvious isn’t it?”
The episode is an embarrassment for Pérez, who put the interests of his own club before the national team and badly misjudged the mood at the RFEF. Lopetegui was immediately replaced by Fernando Hierro, 50, the former Madrid and Spain captain and the RFEF sporting director who takes charge for Friday’s game against Portugal in Sochi.
Tensions were running high between Spain’s most successful club and its governing body on Tuesday night with suggestions that Pérez will press ahead with presenting Lopetegui to the media on Wednesday, just 24 hours before Spain’s opening game. There were also reports in Spain that the RFEF are considering legal action against Madrid.
The willingness of Rubiales, a former journeyman defender who played briefly for Hamilton Academical, to stand up to Madrid and Pérez signals a shift in attitudes in Spanish football. "You can't do things this way, two or three days before the World Cup,” Rubiales said. “We have been forced to make this decision."
He said: “The situation is very complicated. l’m not going to say it’s the best solution but we have decided that this is how it should be. You [Madrid and Lopetegui] can’t do things this way. I found out five minutes before. I asked him [Lopetegui] to not decide anything. The RFEF cannot be on the margin of negotiations with one of its employees and find out about it five minutes before the announcement.”
When he was told of Lopetegui’s appointment on Tuesday, Rubiales left the Fifa Congress in Moscow to return to Spain’s Krasnodar base, a two-hour flight away. The 40-year-old was only elected as RFEF president last month and one of his first decisions in office was to award Lopetegui a new three-year contract.
Lopetegui is represented by Jorge Mendes, the agent to stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho, and responsible for his client getting the Porto job which was his last in club football.
Speaking at Spain’s base on Wednesday night, Hierro said that the job was a “good challenge” and that he believed he had the full support of the squad. “The boys are excited about this challenge and we have no time to be sad,” he said. “I have had great feedback from the players,” he added. “They are a united group and they know what is required.”
Rubiales said that Hierro was the RFEF’s first choice once it had decided to sack Lopetegui. As a major figure in the history of the Spain team, and of Madrid, Hierro will be a difficult figure for even the most senior players in the squad to defy, and his availability made Rubiales’ decision easier.
Having previously managed Spain’s junior teams, Lopetegui, 51, was unbeaten in his 20 senior games in charge. His low-profile appointment was held up as a template for Southgate’s by the English Football Association in 2016 - the two men also knew each other from their time as Under-21s coaches.
He signed his new contract at Rubiales’s instigation just three weeks ago, before the surprise departure of Zinedine Zidane from Madrid following his third Champions League title. As far as Madrid were concerned, Lopetegui was a cheaper option with compensation set at €2 million, although now that the RFEF has dismissed him even that will no longer be payable.
The Juventus manager Max Allegri claimed on Tuesday night that he had turned down the chance to manage Madrid.
As Spain manager, Lopetegui was notably supportive of the Madrid contingent, picking Dani Carvajal when he was injured and persevering with Marco Asensio. The likes of Marcos Alonso, Alvaro Morata and - briefly - Diego Costa found themselves frozen out when they lost their places or form at club level.
Lopetegui had previously played for Madrid as a reserve goalkeeper and later managed their B team Real Madrid Castilla. He is expected to be a compliant choice of head coach for Pérez, who is struggling to keep Madrid competitive in the transfer market while juggling a huge existing wage bill.
The news of Lopetegui’s sacking dominated the final day of preparations before the World Cup finals begin although it was not the day’s only scandal in Spanish sport. The Spanish sports minister Maxim Huerta was forced to resign after just five days in the job when he was named in a tax fraud case.
The former Spain and Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Canizares said the RFEF had made the right decision. "Conserving the team's dignity and making everyone see the value of the national team shirt is not a bad decision. And that's what Rubiales has done. I can understand Lopetegui [joining Madrid], but his sacking is not a surprise to me.
“It’s not like the team will have to fend for themselves. Fernando Hierro is a good choice for any position in the national team. Playing at a World Cup and representing a country’s footballers is a big enough honour. You give everything without any excuses."
The former World Cup winner Xavi said: “These players know each other inside out and I'm sure they'll do well at the World Cup. There'll be no lack of leadership, we've got [Sergio] Ramos, [Gerard] Pique, [Andres] Iniesta, players who are very capable and have a very good team-spirit. It's not the best situation but perhaps it will make them more united and will bring out the best of them, you never know".