By Israel Igiri
When Julen Lopetegui replaced Vicente del Bosque as Spain’s coach in 2016, the team was clearly on the decline after its aging core suffered two early exits from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship. But his coming had the team playing with renewed confidence after striking a balance between the remaining old legs that won the 2010 World Cup and two European Championships (2008 and 2012) and the best talents of its next generation. He looked to have recovered the team from the best times of the La Furia Roja under Del Bosque.
He was promising and had been unimpeachable: 20 matches, zero defeats and going into the tournament in Russia, his team was considered as one of the top favourites to win the biggest trophy in world football. On May 22nd, the Spanish FA (RFEF) announced that Lopetegui had extended his contract until 2020. The newly-elected RFEF president Rubiales was not the man who hired him in the first place, but the decision to renew his contract showed a great trust in Lopetegui.
His announcement as the manager of the Spanish national team after being sacked by FC Porto was a bit surprising, but as quick as his rise to prominence was, his fall came just as quick. In risking everything for his dream job, he has ended up with nothing. Today, it is no longer news that Julen Lopetegui has received his second sack letter in less than five months. To say that it has been a nightmare 2018 for Lopetegui is an understatement. It has been an absolute disaster for the 52-year-old.
Lopetegui was announced as Real Madrid manager two days to the start of the World Cup, while he was still manager of the Spanish national team. Luis Rubiales, the President of the Spanish Federation- angry the federation was not consulted and that such an announcement would be made as Spain were preparing for the World Cup- fired Lopetegui for what he considered to be disrespect from the coach and Madrid.
However, it was a surprise to the world when a statement from Real Madrid on June 13th announced that Lopetegui would take over as their new coach at the end of the World Cup. Although it was not a complete surprise to Rubiales as Florentino Perez had called to give him the news five minutes before Real Madrid announced to the world. At this point, one begins to ask: Why betray the trust of the RFEF? Why would he agree to join Real few days after accepting a new contract? That was an absolute breach of trust. That was the height of betrayal.
Following the sack of Lopetegui, Rubiales hired Fernando Hierro to take charge for the tournament. Hierro’s team was never the same following the sack of Lopetegui. Losing a coach under whom they had played an impressive and result-oriented football in over 18 months two days to their opening match was a huge blow. Picking up the pieces and keeping the morale of the players high was unrealistic within a very short time, and this did manifest as they struggled to make a statement of intent as they were knocked out in the second round by Russia.
Indeed, how things have turned out for Lopetegui in 2018 is shameful. Ever since he was sacked by the Spanish FA in June, Lopetegui has never remained the same. Who would have imagined that a man who was once a respected leader of an honourable Spanish team would become a hopeless and ridiculous man in just a flash? How has the mighty fallen. He has been a dead man walking since his sack in June.
While there will be a little sympathy for Lopetegui, his downfall was ultimately of his own making; he is to blame for his misfortunes. He spent close to 15 years trying to fulfill his dream- coaching the biggest club in the world- but a single action proved too costly for him. It was indeed, a mistake that has made things to fall apart for him in the space of 139 days. While he felt that was his best chance to land his dream job, he should have remained loyal to the Spanish team. However, he snatched the opportunity, and in doing so, he did not know he was heading for doom.
Out of desperation, he was faster than his shadows and now, he has lost two great jobs. Perhaps he forgot that Perez is a no-nonsense man. He forgot to learn from his last three predecessors- Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez and Zinedine Zidane who even did better than he did with the club. There is always intense pressure at the Bernabeu and if you cannot cope with it as a manager, you will be fired. While the fans expected a Los Blancos side that would play a brand of football similar to his Spanish side (high-pressing, quick-passing team that distributed goals around), Lopetegui’s Madrid had failed to live up to what it was promised to be.
At Real Madrid, Lopetegui had been in charge for just 14 games. That is not the story; it was that he lost more games than he won. He had won six and lost six, drawing the remaining two. That is unacceptable at the Bernabeu as the reigning European champions sit ninth in La Liga, suffering their experienced their worst start to a Liga campaign in 10 years. With the straw that broke the camel’s back coming in Sunday’s 5-1 Clasico humiliation by a Messi-less Barcelona side, the club board said it though it had to act now by showing him an early exit door in order to salvage the club’s season.
With a young-talented Spanish team, he could have continued his great ride to the pinnacle of football, but out of desperation, he has now gone down the pecking order. He never envisaged that his days at the Bernabeu would be short-lived; he certainly never saw this coming. Having learnt from the Los Merengues School the hard way, he is now back to the drawing board to do a critical evaluation of his career, and unless he works on himself, he may never rise to the top again.