Spain had almost everything going their way with Julen Lopetegui in charge. With an unbeaten run that stretched to 19 matches heading into the tournament in Russia, anyone could be forgiven for tipping the Spaniards to go all the way to the final — and even lift the trophy. But, as in life, stuff happens. La Roja found themselves in uncharted territory on the eve of the competition.
A sledgehammer to an insect
The football authorities found themselves acting as their own worst enemies. In attempting to solve a problem they created an even bigger one. It seems a sledgehammer was being used to kill an insect biting the foot — and the foot was shattered as a result.
It’s not a strange occurrence in life. Sometimes humans and even organizations self-destruct. The Spanish Football Federation president, Luis Rubiales, knew he took a dangerous gamble when he made the decision to relieve Lopetegui of his duties. It takes a lot for coach to build a winning team. Therefore, any new manager needs some time to get used to his players and fashion out a system of play that will produce the required results.
Certainly, a major competition is not the best time to disrupt a team’s synergy by sacking the manager. The consequences are usually unpleasant. Such decisions are taken in the most severe of cases such as the death of a manager. Not in matters such as a coach deciding to leave the team after the tournament.
The sky didn’t have to fall in
The Portuguese took the job to replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid and things changed overnight. But is there really anything new about a manager taking over a club side while still with a national team before or during a major competition? Such occurrences in recent times include Luis van Gaal leaving the Netherlands national team to take over Manchester United, and Antonio Conte resuming at Chelsea after leaving the Italian national team job.
In both instances, the sky did not fall in. Granted, both left for pastures anew towards the expiration of their respective contracts. However, they were still officially employees of their football associations when their new jobs were announced. They left in the end and new faces replaced them. And life goes on.
But let’s assume the Spanish Football Federation was really undermined by the former Porto boss’ action, and felt he needed to be reprimanded for his behaviour. There are still better ways to deal with the situation in order not to upset the balance in the team.
Lopetegui could have been chided for his action behind the scenes but both parties should have presented a united front for the sake of the task at hand. The RFEF needed to sheath its sword and let peace reign for the sake of the mission. Such a last minute change makes it difficult for the team to adjust to new methods, whoever is taking over.
Lopetegui wasn’t compromised
Interestingly, Lopetegui took over a Spanish side, not a French, Portuguese or an English one. So where is the room for compromise on his part? Would he select a team comprising mostly of Real Madrid players just to please his new employers? Please. Do you really think he will put his chances of winning at risk just to favour his new club’s players?
If he was trying to impress someone in the nation’s capital in order to get a job, maybe. But he already had the job. Now he wants to do the best to impress his new employers the more. He wants to enrich his managerial resume as a World Cup winner. All this would work in Spain’s favour, so why sack him? He has worked hard to get here and perfected strategies on how to complete the job.
Sheep without a shepherd
Ordinarily, the abundance of talent in the Spanish team makes it capable of beating any other side in world football on any given day even without a manager in the dugout. But without a good manager leading the team, this same group of players can seem like a herd of sheep without a shepherd.
Examples of this abound in the game. Argentina has a star-studded team yet they keep struggling. The tactics employed by a coach can make the difference between winning and losing. Argentina took on France in a must-win match with their two strikers, two of the most prolific scorers in Europe Kun Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain sitting on the bench. Paolo Dybala didn’t even get a chance to play. Their poor outing in the tournament was due more to the manager’s tactics than the players’ ability and form.
Even in Spain, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were unstoppable. Then after he left in 2012, Tito Vilanova kept the flag flying. Ill health cut short Vilanova’s reign in 2013. Argentine Gerardo Martino took over but struggled to replicate the success with vastly the same pool of players. He couldn’t win any of La Liga, Copa del Rey or the UEFA Champions League trophies.
Messi became a shadow of himself in that period and the club had to cut their losses by firing him. Some managers know how to get the best from their players; others simply don’t. So when you do find one that does, you don’t let any resolvable issue you have with him derail the team.
Worst still is the fact that there was no top class replacement available. Fernando Hierro may have had a stellar playing carrier but player management and winning matches as a coach require a different set of skills. A stint at Real Oviedo that failed to yield the desired results does not prepare anyone to win the World Cup.
Football is not as predictable as mathematics, but on the strength of what Lopetegui had already achieved with La Furia Roja, one can say that with him in charge, Spain’s performance at the World Cup would have been quiet different. Rubiales’ rash decision may have cost his nation a second world title in Russia.