Lopetegui's Real decision 'forced' furious Spain chiefs to sack him
The Spanish football federation sensationally sacked manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup yesterday, furious that its unbeaten coach had done a deal behind its back to join Real Madrid.
Luis Rubiales, the president of the federation (RFEF), went head to head with Real and is understood to have faced down attempts by the club's players in the national team - who play Portugal in their Group B opener tomorrow in Sochi - to save Lopetegui's job.
In one of the most extraordinary pre-tournament rows, Rubiales, a former head of the Spanish players' union, cited Real's lack of respect to the RFEF.
He said he was told of Lopetegui's decision to join Real 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 president Florentino Perez 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 Perez, who put the interests of his own club before the national team and misjudged the mood at the RFEF.
Lopetegui was immediately replaced by Fernando Hierro, 50, the former Real and Spain captain and the RFEF sporting director who once played for Bolton under Sam Allardyce.
Tensions were running high between Real and the governing body last night, with suggestions that Perez
would press ahead with presenting Lopetegui to the media today. There were also reports in Spain that the RFEF are considering legal action against Real.
The willingness of Rubiales, a former journeyman defender who played briefly for Hamilton Academical, to stand up to Real and Perez signals a shift in attitudes in Spanish football.
"You can't do things this way, two or three days before the World Cup," he said. "We have been forced to make this decision. I'm not going to say it's the best solution but we have decided that this is how it should be.
"You 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 elected as RFEF president only 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 Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho.
Hierro said he could not have turned down the job. "I couldn't have said 'no,'" he said. "I wouldn't forgive myself. I only have one year of experience with Oviedo and one year of experience as an assistant coach," Hierro said. "[But] I've been near a ball for 30 years."
Hierro will have been heartened by a tweet sent earlier by Sergio Ramos, the influential captain of both Real and Spain, in which he wrote: "We are the squad, we represent a shield, colours, supporters, a country. The responsibility and commitment are with you and for you."
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 Real, Hierro will be a difficult figure for even the most senior players in the squad to defy.
Having managed Spain's junior teams, Lopetegui, 51, was unbeaten in his 20 games in charge. He signed his new contract just before the surprise departure of Zinedine Zidane from Real following his third Champions League title. As far as Real 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. (© Daily Telegraph, London)