Spain’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup were on Wednesday thrown into turmoil as Real Madrid-bound coach Julen Lopetegui was dismissed on the eve of the tournament, just two days before their opening game in Russia.
In a bombshell development that followed the naming of Lopetegui as Real’s new coach on Tuesday, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) confirmed that the 2010 World Cup winners had fired their coach and replaced him with Fernando Hierro.
“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” said Hierro, who was already working for the federation as sporting director. “The objective is to fight for a World Cup. The players have been working toward this for two years.”
“I’ve told the players that we have a wonderful, exciting challenge and we can’t let this be an excuse to distract us from our dream,” he said.
Hierro appeared at a news conference alongside federation president Luis Rubiales, who had earlier delivered the news of his decision to fire Lopetegui, despite reported resistance from Spain’s players.
“Negotiating is legitimate, but it took place without the RFEF being informed until five minutes before a press statement was released,” Rubiales said. “There has to be a message for all workers in the federation that there is a right way to do things.”
Lopetegui had signed a new contract until 2020 just last month.
“I am very sad, but we have a magnificent team and hopefully we’ll win the World Cup,” Lopetegui told reporters on his departure from Spain’s training base in Krasnodar.
Hours later, 50-year-old Hierro was named as an emergency replacement, despite having only one season of managerial experience in La Liga 2 with Real Oviedo.
Spain are tomorrow to face European champions Portugal in Sochi, Russia, before taking on Iran and Morocco in Group B.
There were fears Lopetegui’s appointment by the European champions could open up old divisions between the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions in the Spain squad.
For the first time since 2006, there are more players from Madrid in a Spanish squad for a major tournament, with a six-strong Real contingent and just Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets from Barca, as well as Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta, who ended his 16-year career at the Camp Nou last month.
“Lopetegui’s decision was inopportune, unexpected and rushed,” former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who won the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 with Spain, told newspaper Marca at a pretournament event in Moscow.
“It was a surprise for everyone, but Rubiales reacted very well. He has looked after the federation, which should be above any individual,” he said.
However, according to reports in the Spanish media, the players tried to intervene at the last minute to prevent Rubiales from firing Lopetegui.
Lopetegui, who took over in 2016, never tasted defeat in his 20 games as Spain boss.
“I have spoken with the players and what I can guarantee is that the players will do everything in their power, along with the new technical team, to take the team as far as possible,” Rubiales said.
Spain and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos appealed for unity between fans and players.
“We are the national team. We represent a badge, colors, a fan base, a country. The responsibility and commitment are with and for you. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, together,” Ramos said on Twitter.
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