John Brewin: Relentless Real won’t care that Spain are in disarray

Our expert football writer looks at the sacking that stunned the football world on the eve of the opening of the sport’s grandest stage…

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The shock was so great as to overshadow the awarding of the 2026 World Cup to a joint bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

FIFA’s vote proved a fait accompli, whereas Spain’s sacking of Julen Lopetegui was as unprecedented a decision as been made been on the eve of a World Cup finals.

Comparable incidents from major tournaments spring to mind: France’s player rebellion against Raymond Domench in 2010; Saipan in 2002; Brazil in 1970, perhaps the greatest of all teams, sacking coach Joao Saldanha eight weeks before they kicked off in Mexico.

None of them, though, were as quite as drastic as the decision the Spanish Football Association took on Wednesday morning.

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Perhaps the closest comparison to Lopetegui’s dismissal after being appointed Real Madrid manager came during Euro 2008.

After Portugal had beaten the Czech Republic in their second group stage match to preserve a 100% record, the news slipped out that coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had agreed to become Chelsea manager for the coming season.

Portugal lost their next game to Switzerland before exiting at the quarter-final stage to Germany, and the distraction of Felipao’s defection was consequently blamed for costing a team featuring a peak Manchester United-era Cristiano Ronaldo a major tournament success.

Maybe the logic at hand for the decision that Luis Rubiales made was that Spain’s efforts in Russia would be damaged by the coach being the incoming boss of six of the 23-man squad though the public reasons given centred on betrayal and Lopetegui’s current employers being kept in the dark.

“You can’t do things like that, five minutes before it’s official,” Rubiales said, before taking aim at Lopetegui’s agent, after jetted in from Moscow for showdown talks with Lopetegui at Spain’s training camp in Krasnodar.

“I don’t have to judge Real Madrid, the one who brought the matter to him is responsible because things can’t be done that way.”

There was naivety and innocence about Rubiales’ expectation of morality in the dark and dingy world of football negotiations.

Anyone paying close attention would surely recognise that in football and for the last half century or so, Real Madrid almost always get their man, and the means of doing so may offend certain sensibilities, but that will not prevent their juggernaut ploughing on regardless towards its target.

Despite longstanding links with Real, Lopetegui was by no means first choice, but as contenders like Mauricio Pochettino, Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and even dear old Arsene Wenger slid by and Real, still panicked by Zinedine Zidane’s sudden abdication on May 31, moved fast, too fast as it turned out for Lopetegui, who has unexpectedly lost one of coaching’s greatest honours, to lead his nation at a World Cup finals.

And after such a disappointment, he should have no illusions that the maelstrom of Madrid can provide a calm port in the storm that engulfs him.

Europe’s most successful club is notoriously careless with coaches. Zidane had stepped aside fully in the knowledge that his time would surely come, despite winning three consecutive Champions League titles.

Lopetegui is already living on sudden death, and should Spain prosper without him in Russia, he would begin his reign at the Santiago Bernabeu as a lame duck.

There might already be suspicion over his credentials in any case, given that he won no silverware at Porto, who sacked him after 18 months in charge in January 2016.

The portents do not look good. Scolari, after all the hubbub, lasted only until the following February at Chelsea, perhaps the club whose treatment of managers bears closest comparison to Real’s revolving door.

Without Lopetegui, Spain’s players, some whom made a delegation that pleaded for clemency and failed, are now under the control of Fernando Hierro, who once defined Real Madrid and the national team as an autocratic captain and was his country’s all-time leading scorer for a period even though playing as a centre-back.

There are just two days to go until Friday evening in Sochi, where Ronaldo and Portugal are Spain’s first opponents so Hierro cannot have too much effect on tactics, but how the players respond to that sudden regime change is key.

Under Lopetegui, La Roja had seemed renewed after its falls from grace at both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, with players like Marco Asensio, Saul and Isco refreshing a squad with plenty of survivors from the teams that won Euro 2008 and 2012 either side of the 2010 World Cup.

It falls to the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, on his last stand for Spain, to pull matters together, assert their seniority.

But even those who have won it all between them have never had to deal with a situation quite like this.

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