Stunned Spain must regroup

Uphill task for new coach after Lopetegui sacking shock

The 2018 FIFA World Cup takes place in Russia from 14 June to 15 July 2018.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup takes place in Russia from 14 June to 15 July 2018.

The sacking of Julen Lopetegui just two days before the start of Spain’s World Cup campaign leaves new coach Fernando Hierro precious little time to regroup a stunned squad that 24 hours ago were considered among the favourites for the tournament.

Spain face European champions Portugal in Sochi on Friday in what was already a highly anticipated clash even before the amazing events that saw Lopetegui surprisingly named Real Madrid manager on Tuesday and then relieved of his duties as Spain boss less than a day later.

Lopetegui was meant to take charge at the Santiago Bernabeu after the tournament.

However, the firing of the former Madrid and Barcelona goalkeeper is just the latest reminder of the fine balance any manager of La Roja must strike in the omnipresent rivalry between Spain’s two biggest clubs.

For the first time in a major tournament since 2006, Real’s six-strong contingent outnumber Barca players in the Spain squad, with only Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets selected, along with Andres Iniesta, who only last month brought his glorious 16-year career at the Camp Nou to an end.

With at least six of the expected starting XI for the Portugal game to come from Madrid and Barca, Hierro, himself a former Real captain, must ensure club loyalties do not further undermine Spain’s chances, with divisions already appearing between the players and the federation.

According to Spanish media reports, the players’ wish for Lopetegui to stay, including the likes of Pique and Busquets, could not change Federation chief Luis Rubiales’s mind so furious was he with the fact Lopetegui had not informed his employers of negotiations with Madrid until minutes before the appointment was made public.

Lopetegui never lost in 20 games as Spain boss, but even in a flawless qualifying campaign on the field, the Madrid-Barca rivalry and Spain’s turbulent political situation overshadowed their performances.

Pique, who will retire from international football after the World Cup, has been jeered routinely by Spain fans for the past two years for his jibes at Real and also defending Catalonia’s right to have a referendum on independence from Spain.

The rivalry was often cited as a reason for Spain’s tag as perennial underachievers at major tournaments until a golden run of three consecutive victories between 2008 and 2012.

Former Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Barca captains Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez played a big part in binding those squads together and their leadership in the national team has been missed.

Despite his paucity of managerial experience, having spent just one season in charge of second division Oviedo, Hierro could help unify a distressed camp.

He was popular among the players as the federation’s sporting director between 2007 and 2011 and returned to that role in November last year.

Games against Iran and Morocco to come in Group B should also give Spain some time to recover, even if Portugal do inflict a bad start, as they did in 2010 after losing their opening game to Switzerland.

Captain Sergio Ramos, Pique, Iniesta and Busquets all have experience of winning major tournaments, while the likes of Koke, Isco and Marco Asensio brought more energy as Lopetegui added fresh blood to Spain in the qualifiers.