So, here’s the background. On May 22nd, Julen Lopetegui—former Porto manager, former Spain youth coach, and now suddenly and not a little bafflingly the ex-manager of the Spanish senior squad—signed a new contract with the RFEF, Spain’s national soccer federation. The general consensus at the time was that Lopetegui had been doing a pretty good job stewarding La Roja out of the slightly overlong Vicente Del Bosque Era, keeping the possession-based style Spain are known for intact, but not quite playing tiki-taka, and successfully integrating some younger players (Isco, Koke, Marco Asensio, et al.) into the rotation as older heads faded out of their primes. The RFEF extended him for another two years, basically giving Lopetegui a vote of confidence heading into the World Cup and anticipating he would lead Spain through at least the 2020 European Championship.
On May 31st, Zinedine Zidane decided to go out on a high note with Real Madrid, resigning from his post after winning his third consecutive Champions League. If that sounds like a strange decision, know that Madrid burn through managers rather quickly. Zidane was never going to set up some kind of Alex Ferguson-style long-term residency at the club, so he left before the situation had a chance to sour. Madrid then embarked on a managerial search that was less fruitful than they might have hoped. Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino turned them down. Chelsea’s Antonio Conte—who has, at best, an antagonistic relationship with his current employer—said he was going to honor his contract. Juventus’s Max Allegri said no. It’s a near-impossible thing, to follow a manager who has won three Champions Leagues. At some point in the last week, having struck out with a handful of high-profile candidates, Madrid settled on Lopetegui.
A few Real Madrid players were notified of the appointment, which is normal enough. But then a non-Madrid player in the Spain squad found out and club president Florentino Perez became worried word would leak to the press, so he called Lopetegui on Tuesday and said why don’t we just announce this thing now? Lopetegui agreed. Either he or somebody at Madrid informed the RFEF, then informed the press five minutes later. Headlines: REAL MADRID HIRE SPAIN BOSS, etc. A little awkward, timing-wise, but not outrageous. He would start his new gig after the World Cup.
And then, this morning, the RFEF simply fired him. Luis Rubiales, FA chief: Some decisions have to be taken. I don't feel betrayed. While he was working with the Spanish national side his work was impeccable. Another thing is what he's done without the RFEF knowing, while he was working for the RFEF. The way you do things is important.
Indeed it is, Luis. Numerous players in the Spain squad apparently found out about the firing and tried to throw their bodies in front of it, imploring the RFEF to, y’know, not dismiss their coach two days before their first World Cup match. Rubiales disregarded their protests. The guy who’s taking over for Lopetegui is Fernando Hierro, Spain’s current (since last November) and former (2007-11) sporting director. His only head managerial job was at Real Oviedo, a second division side, in 2016-17. He says he’ll keep everything as close to Lopetegui’s vision as possible, which makes sense. It would have been extra wild if he proclaimed that he’s shifting Spain to a counterattacking 3-5-2 less than forty-eight hours before their match against Portugal.
This is not a quintessentially Spanish mess—most national federations are incompetently run hives of vain bureaucrats—but for anyone who keeps up with the way the RFEF is run, it’s not a huge surprise that something like this would happen. Rubiales hasn’t been in charge of the FA for long at all. He was elected last month, on May 17th, in an election that was held because the old RFEF head, Ángel María Villar, was arrested last summer on corruption charges. (Alleged falsification of documents, misappropriation of funds, asset stripping—all the classic white-collar gangster hits.) It’s understandable that Rubiales would be a whit insecure taking over a dirty shop and want to project strength. He’s chosen to do this by discombobulating his national team squad on the eve on an important tournament watched by literal billions.
How much is this actually going to affect Spain? It’s difficult to say. Zinedine Zidane, the man the rest of Europe seemed terrified to replace, wasn’t a tactical genius at Real Madrid, and they got along okay because they had some basic tenets—rapid attacks down the flanks, controlled midfield play, scoring absurd overhead kicks at opportune times—that shaped an obscenely talented team. Across town, Atlético Madrid won the Europa League last season without Diego Simeone on the touchline for the last two-and-a-half games of their run. He set the squad up at the outset of matches, but he couldn’t communicate with them otherwise.
In other words, managers matter, but if you give a good squad a solid idea or two, they’re capable of doing the rest of the job themselves. (This is particularly true of national teams, which aren’t as tightly drilled as club sides.) Sergio Ramos and David Silva know what they’re doing out on the pitch, in a general sense, and they’ve been working under Lopetegui for nearly two years, so they know what he would want them to accomplish and how to go about doing that.
But it, uh, obviously would help if Julen Lopetegui were still around, to handle the specific difficulties of certain matches and to make the players feel as if they’re not alone. To coach. As it stands, Luis Rubiales and the RFEF have basically abandoned the Spain squad in Russia. This isn’t a death sentence. They’re immensely skilled and experienced, but they’ll need to find their best level by themselves if they’re going to compete for the World Cup title. Pulling this off will mean making it up as they go along, playing only for each other and furiously against the myopic suits who have put them in this predicament. In a way, that’s inspiration. Though you could just as easily call it panic.