Spain shocker

Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui (far left) during training in Krasnodar, Russia, on Tuesday - the day he was named as Zinedine Zidane's replacement at Real Madrid. Spain sporting director Fernando Hierro (above) will take charge of the national side
Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui (left) during training in Krasnodar, Russia, on Tuesday - the day he was named as Zinedine Zidane's replacement at Real Madrid. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE
Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui (far left) during training in Krasnodar, Russia, on Tuesday - the day he was named as Zinedine Zidane's replacement at Real Madrid. Spain sporting director Fernando Hierro (above) will take charge of the national side
Spain sporting director Fernando Hierro (above) will take charge of the national side for the World Cup.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE

Lopetegui sacked as manager after national body blindsided over acceptance of Real role

The first shock of the 2018 World Cup was delivered yesterday, even before a ball had been kicked.

The quadrennial tournament begins today, with the opening game between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia but chaos erupted in Russia as Spain sacked coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament.

He was replaced by Spain sporting director Fernando Hierro.

The stunning move came just two days before they play the biggest group game at this World Cup - their Group B opener against reigning European champions Portugal tomorrow in Sochi.

The sacking occurs one day after another surprise announcement - that of Lopetegui's departure for Real Madrid at the end of the tournament - a move which angered the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). He had extended his contract with the RFEF until 2020 just three weeks ago.

RFEF president Luis Rubiales and Lopetegui, 51, had been scheduled to appear at a press conference at the Krasnodar Stadium at 11.30am local time, but the session was delayed amid sacking rumours.

After hours of speculation - Spain skipper Sergio Ramos was said to have tried to stop the axe from falling - Rubiales announced at 1pm: "We have to decided to fire the national coach. What we have achieved in getting here is due in great part to him, and we must thank him and wish him luck."

While Lopetegui was unbeaten - of all the Spain coaches at the helm for more than five games, he was the only one without a defeat (12 wins and four draws since 2016) - his Real Madrid appointment was deemed unacceptable by the RFEF.

Rubiales, a 40-year-old former LaLiga player nicknamed Pundonor (a Spanish term for honour and courage), added: "We only found out just five minutes before the announcement that he was leaving for Madrid.

"There is a way that you must act. Julen has worked in a great way with the team, but we cannot accept how he has acted in this case."

He insisted that when he spoke to the players, they had promised to continue giving their all.

The news brought to mind former France coach Jacques Santini, who agreed to join Tottenham Hotspur nine days before Euro 2004. France surprisingly lost to Greece in the quarter-finals and Santini later resigned after four defeats in 13 games as Spurs manager.

Marc Ibanez Perez, who works for Spanish magazine Panenka, told The Straits Times: "Some people in Spain were surprised when Lopetegui was appointed Real Madrid manager.

"The timing of that announcement could have been better but (Real Madrid president) Florentino Perez has a lot of power in Spain and without a manager, he might have accelerated the process.

"But Spain sacking Lopetegui at this moment is crazy and a bigger shock.

"We are worried, and concerned about what Lopetegui has been doing in the past few weeks and the concentration of the team."

In an interview with Spanish newspaper Marca, retired star Xavi Hernandez, a member of the 2010 World Cup-winning team, said: "The decision of Lopetegui has seemed untimely, unexpected and hasty. It has been a surprise for all but Rubiales has reacted very well.

"He has looked after the federation, which must always be above the individuals."

Panenka's Perez is counting on the players' professionalism, but he wondered what influence Hierro can have at such short notice.

He said: "The World Cup is very important for the players and they know what they have to do.

"I think the new manager will adopt the same tactical approach as before because the players are already used to it. He cannot do many changes, so I don't know what impact he actually has."

Xavi, however, told Marca: "Hierro is a very prepared person to take charge of the national team... Spain remain strong candidates to win the World Cup."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2018, with the headline 'Spain shocker'. Print Edition | Subscribe