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Spain fires coach on eve of World Cup

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Lopetegui

The Spanish national team has sacked manager Julen Lopetegui in controversial fashion just one day before the start of the World Cup.

After a wild 48 hours of secret negotiations, leaks, dreadfully poor communication and anger, the Spanish soccer federation made the decision despite opposition from the team’s senior players.

Real Madrid announced on Tuesday that Lopetegui would become the club’s new manager after the World Cup. The plan was for Lopetegui to lead Spain throughout the tournament, then bolt for Madrid.

But the timing of the announcement infuriated Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales. Rubiales called a news conference Wednesday, reportedly with the intention of sacking Lopetegui. Players, led by Sergio Ramos, then reportedly intervened.

But Rubiales, shockingly, couldn’t let his nation’s World Cup hopes trump his personal pride. So he pulled the trigger.
And now Spain, one of the pre-tournament favorites, is without a manager 48 hours before its 2018 World Cup opener against Portugal.

The short version of the story goes like this: Lopetegui, who took charge of the national team in 2016 and hasn’t lost since, signed a contract extension through Euro 2020 in late May. A week later, Zinedine Zidane abruptly resigned as Real Madrid manager.

So Real went hunting for a new boss. Six days before the World Cup began, Real reportedly began negotiating with Lopetegui and his representatives. Three days before the start of the World Cup, Lopetegui reportedly decided he wanted the job. But all of this was happening behind the Spanish federation’s back. They were unaware of the talks.

A plan was in place for him to take the Madrid job following the World Cup. But for fear of unwelcome distraction – which now seems ironic – the plan appeared to be to delay the announcement until after the World Cup as well. That didn’t happen, because Lopetegui reportedly told the six Real Madrid players in his World Cup squad. Other players reportedly caught wind of the news – or at least Lopetegui feared they did.

So for fear of a leak to the media, Lopetegui went to Real Madrid. Suddenly, everything accelerated. Real Madrid reportedly didn’t contact the Spanish federation until minutes before it sent out Tuesday’s press release.

“We only found out just five minutes before,” Rubiales confirmed at a news conference Wednesday.

Lopetegui didn’t tell his Spain players until the beginning of training the same day, either.

And the fact that everything was engineered so secretively, without the Spanish federation’s knowledge, is why Rubiales, right or wrong, felt he had no choice.

“If anybody wants to talk to one of our employees, they have to speak to us too,” the federation president said Wednesday. “That is basic, as this is the team of all Spaniards. The national team is the most important we have, the WC is the biggest of all.”

When Rubiales heard the news Tuesday, he reportedly stormed out of Moscow, back to Spain’s base camp in Krasnodar, incensed that all of this would happen behind his back. And he made the 2018 World Cup’s most controversial and stunning decision before the 2018 World Cup has even begun.

Where does Spain go now? Not even Spain knows. Rubiales had not settled on a solution when he met the media late Wednesday morning.

“We are working on it,” he said. “When we know we will tell you.”

The most likely candidate to take over for Lopetegui would be one of his assistants.

But there’s no underestimating how much of a disruption this is. Spain had cruised through qualifying. In 20 games under the 51-year-old former goalkeeper, La Roja hadn’t lost. And not only that, they’d been winning in style.

The reason for the sacking, at least in part, is that Lopetegui’s clandestine negotiations with Real Madrid represented a distraction ahead of the World Cup. But in reality, the sacking itself is the biggest distraction of all.