It takes something very special to render all those World Cup preview pull-outs that fell from newspapers last weekend seriously out of date within days.
One of these booklets, in the section on Spain, makes reference to the new two-year contract manager Julen Lopetegui signed last month. It is presented as evidence of “the faith his employers have in him to crystallise his recent good work with success in Russia”. A 6-1 win over Argentina in March simply added to the feeling Spain were in a good position to right the wrongs of their farcical defence of the trophy four years ago in Brazil.
Step forward Luis Rubiales. Once a defender with Hamilton Accies, he is now the shaven-headed, no nonsense head of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).
In fact, first of all step forward Zinedine Zidane. His sudden decision earlier this month to resign as manager of Real Madrid set in motion a chain of events that led to Spain becoming manager-less two days before their opening Group B game, against Portugal. Fernando Hierro has stepped up from his role as Sporting Director to replace Lopetegui. It is the equivalent of Alex McLeish being replaced by Malky Mackay on the eve of the World Cup. Which does sound a very Scottish way of doing things.
Zidane’s departure caught everyone on the hop. But no one expected it to impact on Spain’s chances of World Cup glory. Lopetegui was not even quoted on most of the lists of candidates to replace the Frenchman.
A relatively unknown 51-year-old, Lopetegui has been quietly contributing to Spain’s restoration following a shambolic World Cup in Brazil and a disappointing follow-up tournament at Euro 2016, where they exited at the last-16 stage. That defeat against Italy remains their last loss. This sense of a team well placed to live up to their billing as one of the favourites to clinch the World Cup has been seriously compromised by yesterday’s news. But it was confirmation from Real Madrid on Tuesday regarding the identity of their next manager that really began the process of unsettling the Spanish camp.
Rubiales revealed yesterday that the RFEF only learned their manager was effectively hoping to work his notice at the World Cup five minutes before everyone else did. This, he stressed, wasn’t acceptable.
Rather than attend yesterday’s World Cup vote in Moscow, the 40-year-old former defender, who played four times for Hamilton Accies at the start of the 2009-10 season (all defeats), flew to Krasnodar, the southern Russian city where Spain are based. There were meetings with players, staff and officials. It was reported Sergio Ramos, the Spain captain, begged Rubiales not to fire Lopetegui. But the president had made up his mind.
Tomorrow night’s clash between Spain and Portugal was greatly anticipated in any case. But it’s now been given extra context: a clash between two dysfunctional Iberian rivals, one of whom lost their manager on the eve of the tournament and another where several of the likely starting XI are in open revolt with their club, crisis-torn Sporting Lisbon.
That situation, where fans have already attacked players at the club’s training ground, is exceptional. But can it be considered so unusual for a World Cup manager to be in negotiations about another job shortly before the tournament begins? This latest episode has called to mind the vicious reaction to reports Bobby Robson had agreed to take over at PSV Eindhoven at the end of England’s involvement at the World Cup in 1990.
FA chairman Bert Millichip had unwisely stated it was a case of win the World Cup or get out for Robson, who understandably took this to mean his job was in peril. He opted to accept an offer from PSV. The story leaked out days before England were due to head to Italy.At a chaotic, hastily convened press conference, FA secretary Graham Kelly sought to convince reporters Robson hadn’t been sacked and neither had he been colluding behind the backs of the association. Reporters were not convinced.
“Robson Sells Out For A Pot of Gold!” was one headline, “PSV Off Bobby” another. The relationship between the England squad and the press turned even more toxic. Midfielder Steve McMahon was filmed ripping up a copy of a newspaper before training.
Despite the outcry, Robson, unlike Lopetegui, was permitted to continue with his England duties.
As Gary Lineker points out in Return to Turin, a documentary which aired last week on the History Channel: “I think one newspaper even called him [Robson] a traitor. All he was doing was looking after himself for a job after the World Cup. It wasn’t as if he left the World Cup at that particular moment.”
Robson’s squad rallied round him, as the Spanish players seem to wish to do in the case of Lopetegui. There are reports they are insisting on him being reinstated. Rubiales has so far resisted these calls. The question remains: what effect will all this have on a brilliant, if temperamental, Spanish team? It could help concentrate minds, as seemed to happen when England reached the semi-final at Italia 90 having nurtured an “us against the world” mentality. It could just as easily serve to break a side already under pressure to mend the wounds from Brazil, where they failed to qualify from the group stage.
Few thought La Roja could beat that bleak experience. Spain slipped away from Curitiba amid bickering about their base, which, in their wisdom, the RFEF decided should be located in an old hospital building in one of the cooler spots in the country many miles from the ocean.
Once again the Spanish risk being beaten by an old foe. Not Portugal, tomorrow’s opponents in Sochi, but themselves.