Thursday 24 January 2019

Off-field embarrassment can be catalyst for Spain to flourish once again

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, right, poses with newly appointed coach Julen Lopetegui. Lopetegui was the Spanish coach but was fired two days before Spain's opening match against Portugal, after he had accepted the job with Real Madrid. Photo: Andrea Comas/AP
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, right, poses with newly appointed coach Julen Lopetegui. Lopetegui was the Spanish coach but was fired two days before Spain's opening match against Portugal, after he had accepted the job with Real Madrid. Photo: Andrea Comas/AP

Stephen Hunt

Roy Keane's exit from the 2002 World Cup will remain one of the biggest stories and shocks in Ireland's sporting history. It was a massive story then and it still splits debate now. Globally, however, given what Spain have achieved over the last couple of decades, the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of these finals is much bigger. And potentially much worse.

Keane may be a bigger personality and his departure was world news, mainly because he was the captain of Manchester United, but even he would have to admit that Spain are an even bigger organisation and team.

But I don't think the Spanish FA and the president Luis Rubiales had much choice after it was announced by Real Madrid on Tuesday that Lopetegui would be taking over from Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu next season.

Unless Real Madrid and Lopetegui knew that the story was going to be leaked by the Spanish media, I cannot understand why the news was released so close to the finals. But Rubiales was given five minutes' notice by Real Madrid and Lopetegui before the official announcement was made. That was an embarrassment for him, the Spanish FA and, in fact, Real Madrid. And it left Lopetegui's position untenable. He only signed a contract extension to continue with Spain last month.

While I can understand the lure of Real Madrid, what I can't understand, if the European champions really wanted him, was why he could not have put the talks and the inevitable announcement on hold for a month. If he is good enough, they could have waited. But now Lopetegui has given up the privilege of managing his country at a World Cup.

His exit could actually have a positive impact on the Spanish squad, who will remain among the favourites to win the World Cup and their performance against Portugal on Friday night showed they are going to be a force at these finals. They were among the favourites when they qualified unbeaten under Lopetegui, and went 20 games without defeat. And it is now 21.

There was no impact on their style of play. They dominated Portugal, although if you look at the three goals they conceded, they all came from silly mistakes. But Spain will always have a chance when Diego Costa is playing at his best. His no-nonsense, old-fashioned centre-forward performance in Sochi showed why he is one of the best strikers in the world and he could really enjoy himself in Russia.

Former Bolton defender Fernando Hierro taking over the Spanish team at this stage of proceedings is rather like Kevin Kilbane being handed the Republic of Ireland job; everyone likes him, no one has a bad word to say about him, he has very little experience as a manager, the players will all want him to succeed and, after appearing at four World Cup finals, he has the experience, from a playing perspective at least, to understand and perhaps cope with the pressures ahead.

Yes, he is taking over a very good squad with some world-class players, but he will have to deal with egos who, with the possible exception of the third-choice goalkeeper, will all think they should be in the starting XI. At least he can do so from a neutral perspective, not as the future manager of Real Madrid.

By all accounts the Spanish squad was split on Lopetegui's future when they met with Rubiales after he had flown into the camp in Krasnodar from the FIFA congress in Moscow on Wednesday. That probably made the president's mind up.

The biggest issue Lopetegui would have had to deal with in the Spanish squad was the obvious split between the Real Madrid and Barcelona players, which is, I am sure, difficult enough for any Spain manager to deal with. Any decision he made would harm Spain, and possibly Real Madrid next season.

If he had selected a Real Madrid player, as their prospective new manager, he would have been accused of bias. And if he had left out a Barcelona player, he would have been accused of the same, as well as providing them with ammunition to prove him wrong, and gain personal revenge, next season. He really could not win.

The Lopetegui story this week has put Martin O'Neill's situation with the FAI into perspective and emphasises how that outcome has suited all parties in Ireland.

As far as John Delaney is concerned, of course the FAI comes first and Martin gave his word that he would stay with Ireland and sign a new contract. When Stoke came in, after sacking Mark Hughes, he kept the FAI informed and did nothing wrong by speaking to Stoke. Then he made his mind up to stay and plan for the next qualifying campaign. It was certainly not as messy as the situation Spain find themselves in, and don't forget, Stoke City were relegated from the Premier League, so perhaps Martin dodged a bullet there anyway.

The difference between Spain starting their campaign with a win and the draw they got, was Cristiano Ronaldo. His hat-trick, in a Portugal side which didn't look like scoring, came down to pure self-belief, pure mental strength and his phenomenal skill at delivering on the biggest stage when it really matters.

When he placed that ball for the free-kick and closed his eyes, he was visualising his goal, no doubt thinking of his pride earlier in the week when his young son planted his own free-kick into a net.

He may have been on the highest stage in football, with all of the world watching, but he will have forgotten completely where he was, and have just seen that ball hitting the back of the net.

I don't know what motivates him. It's not money. What better way to respond to the tax evasion conviction, conveniently announced just hours before kick-off, than three goals against the Spanish? It is either his battle with Lionel Messi to be the best, his family, maybe it is just his ego. Something keeps him going.

Forget the bullshit. He has 100 per cent achieved everything he wanted to achieve in the game. Portugal may not win the World Cup but they do have a chance with him in the team. Whatever happens over the next few weeks, he has already proved he is one of the best.

Sunday Indo Sport

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