Julen Lopetegui said being fired as Spain coach two days before their opening match at the World Cup was possibly “the saddest day of my life” since his mother died, and joining Real Madrid as their new coach was “the happiest day of my life”.
Lopetegui, 51, made the emotional remarks as he was officially introduced by Real last night at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
It has been a tumultuous three days for Lopetegui, and Spain’s national team who open their campaign against Iberian neighbours Portugal in Russia tonight.
Lopetegui was fired by Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales on Wednesday – a day after Real made the unexpected announcement that Lopetegui had agreed to quit Spain and join the European champions after the World Cup.
Rubiales said he felt “compelled” to fire Lopetegui because the coach and Madrid had kept him in the dark until five minutes before the club made the deal public. He was replaced by Fernando Hierro, a former Spain international and Real Madrid captain who had been acting as the federation’s sports director.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez denied his club had acted improperly and slammed Rubiales for firing Lopetegui.
“It was a disproportionate and unjust response that is without precedent,” said Perez. “Some people will do anything to hurt the image of Real Madrid.”
Perez said that Real informed Rubiales as soon as the deal was done.
“Those who say we hid something are wrong,” Perez said. “We reached a deal... and wanted to make it public so as to avoid leaks that could disrupt the work of the national team.”
Real’s hiring of Lopetegui as Spain were finalising their World Cup preparations drew widespread criticism. But his dismissal has divided fans and sports media in Spain. Some feel Lopetegui would have had a conflict of interests with six Madrid players in the national squad; others argue forcing his exit only creates more chaos.
Lopetegui said that Spain’s players received the news he had taken the Real job left vacant by Zinedine Zidane “fantastically”.
“The practice session we had after I told them was the best of the week,” Lopetegui claimed. “They had absolutely no problem with it.”
Spain’s players have not commented directly on Lopetegui’s exit, and his replacement by federation sports director Fernando Hierro for the tournament.
Veterans Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique issued calls for unity via Twitter, and Ramos said yesterday that “we need to turn the page as soon as possible” to focus on the game against Portugal in Sochi.
Lopetegui signed a three-year contact with Real. He takes the place of Zidane, who stunned the club two weeks ago by saying he was leaving after winning the Champions League three years in a row.
The new coach inherits the doubts surrounding star forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, both of whom put their futures at the club in doubt after Real’s victory over Liverpool in the Champions League final last month.
Lopetegui kept Spain unbeaten during 20 matches in charge and guided them to a first-place finish in a World Cup qualifying group that included Italy.
Ramos, meanwhile, joked Spain’s World Cup build-up had become like a funeral. “I want to say goodbye with a smile because it seems like we are at a funeral,” Ramos said as he answered what reporters had been told would be the last question of a 17-minute press conference. “Tomorrow a World Cup starts [for Spain] and I think this is wonderful.”
Tonight’s match will bring Ramos up against his Real Madrid clubmate Cristiano Ronaldo. Ramos said: “I prefer having him on my side than against. He is a great player and a constant danger.”
Spain triumphed the last time the sides met in the World Cup, in South Africa eight years ago. They also have the better head-to-head record between the countries, having won 16 of their 35 meetings, compared to Portugal’s six.