Monday 10 December 2018

Comment: Something is rotten at the heart of the Spanish national game and it is called Real Madrid

Julen Lopetegui poses with the jersey with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez after being unveiled as the club’s new manager yesterday. Spain, who Lopetegui coached until Wednesday, begin their World Cup campaign against Portugal tonight. Photo: REUTERS/Juan Medina
Julen Lopetegui poses with the jersey with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez after being unveiled as the club’s new manager yesterday. Spain, who Lopetegui coached until Wednesday, begin their World Cup campaign against Portugal tonight. Photo: REUTERS/Juan Medina

James Lawton

Spain may well have committed World Cup suicide by firing their winning coach, and author of an impeccable campaign, but there is something glorious, as well as a little mad, in their point of principle.

In it there is a trace of the defiant war cry of the Spanish left as they went down to defeat against Real Madrid's most influential supporter, the late Generalissimo Franco. It declared: "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees."

Starting tonight against Portugal the deeper, more practical analysis - and judgement - of the decision which landed way beyond the borders of Spanish football with the impact of a rockfall in the Sierras will no doubt begin.

But then in the meantime, it is hard not to believe the implications, even if we don't go all the way back to the Civil War, run a lot deeper than a couple of flashpoints in the offices of the Spanish Federation and the eyrie of Real's long-time dictator Florentino Perez.

At the heart of them is the belief in most of the country that there is something deeply cynical, if not rotten, at the centre of a national game which flowered so gloriously with the arrival of the 21st century. And it is called Real Madrid.

Yes, the great winners, the ultimate arbiters of victory and defeat, Real, the team who, when it matters, seem able to pull all the vital strings and no doubt Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish federation and until now an obscure, former journeyman player, is not alone in believing that their latest stroke is the last word in arrogance.

To lay hands on the national coach, and national hero, Julen Lopetegui, to wrap him up as their latest piece of disposable football property, and then casually tell his current employers - the football nation - five minutes before announcing it to the world and two days before the World Cup - exposes many traits of operating style but, above all, surely, an absolute disregard for any interests but their own.

Lopetegui, it might be said, does not come out of the affair shining with a sense of patriotic priorities.

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Sure, he had the dazzling goal of the Bernabeu in his sights, but also a set of players who have performed brilliantly under his care, who have announced a determination to win back some of the lustre that had begun to fade in the Brazilian World Cup in 2014 and in the European Championships in France two years ago.

Presumably, it was asking too much to stall that personal ambition against the need for the Spanish team to fly to Russia without a barrage of questions, and doubts, about the depth of their relationship with a coach whose previous peak in club football was his two-year stewardship of Porto which ended with his sacking.

Yes, it is true, they are big, worldly boys - Sergio Ramos is, after all, their captain - and we can get a little too pious about these matters in a game where the sheer weight of money has worn down the idea of all for one and one for all.

Plainly, though, some of the players have been affected emotionally; hence their pleadings with the federation for the coach's job to last another few weeks. Yet even Vincent Del Bosque, the master coach who could write a long essay on man's ingratitude to man, as expressed by his former employers Real, is prepared to believe the successors to the team he led to a Championship title and Spain's only World Cup triumph will settle into a competitive rhythm.

"It is not a good situation," says Del Bosque, "but it is not impossible. They have proved themselves at the highest level, and once they have settled into their work they will be fine, they will play for each other and the country. I know Fernando Hierro. He played for me and he is a good man,"

He also shares vividly with Del Bosque a sense of the operating style of Perez's Real. They were both fired on the same day in 2003, the day after winning La Liga, a second such triumph along with two Champions League wins in four years. Perez announced: "Our feeling was he was not the right coach for the future." But then how would he know? He appointed six more in as many years before winning another title and then when one did, Fabio Capello, he was promptly fired. By the time Real landed another European title, Del Bosque had proved himself one of the great coaches.

Can this Spain rekindle some of that stature against Cristiano Ronaldo and his men in Sochi tonight? Can Andres Iniesta find one last spring of intuitive brilliance, the kind which brought him the winning goal deep into extra time in the 2010 final against Holland in Johannesburg. Or the sublime vision which turned the 2012 European final against Italy in Kiev - an Italy for whom the eccentric Mario Balotelli had scored stunning goals and Andrea Pirlo retained some of his sharpest skills - into a stunning example of the Spanish game at it best.

Iniesta, the little man from La Mancha, will not be deflected by the power manipulations of Real Madrid. He came to his maturity at Barcelona, where good coaches have always been revered, and who knows he may just take one last chance to inflict what he believes are football's best values. Foremost among these is the humility to work in a team. His old comrade Xavi, who with 31 trophies is second only to Iniesta as the most successful Spanish player, has said the right decision has been made.

A formidable witness, indeed, in the case for Spanish football as an independent force of its own. Real Madrid may have a warehouse of trophies but if, against the odds, there is another World Cup win for La Roja, it will not be among them.

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