Spain fires manager Julen Lopetegui on eve of World Cup amid Real Madrid controversy

The Spanish national team has sacked manager Julen Lopetegui in controversial fashion just one day before the start of the 2018 World Cup.

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

Real Madrid had 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 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 Spain, one of the pre-tournament favorites, was suddenly without a manager 48 hours before its 2018 World Cup opener against Portugal.

Later on Wednesday, it appointed its own sporting director, Fernando Hierro, as the national team’s head coach for the upcoming tournament. But that won’t quell the sense of upheaval now coursing throughout the program.

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ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA JJUNE 13, 2018: State Hermitage Museum deaf cat Achilles, the 2018 FIFA World Cup animal oracle, predicts the result of the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Danila Shostak/TASS (Photo by Danila Shostak\TASS via Getty Images)
A participant dresses Achilles the cat, one of the State Hermitage Museum mice hunters, which attempts to predict the result of the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia during an event in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA JJUNE 13, 2018: State Hermitage Museum deaf cat Achilles, the 2018 FIFA World Cup animal oracle, predicts the result of the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Danila Shostak/TASS (Photo by Danila Shostak\TASS via Getty Images)
A participant holds Achilles the cat, one of the State Hermitage Museum mice hunters, which attempts to predict the result of the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia during an event in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
Achilles the cat, one of the State Hermitage Museum mice hunters, attempts to predict the result of the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia during an event in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Achilles the cat, one of the State Hermitage Museum mice hunters, chooses Russia while attempting to predict the result of the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia during an event in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
Achilles the cat, one of the State Hermitage Museum mice hunters, lies on a table while attempting to predict the result of the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia during an event in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
Achilles the cat, one of the State Hermitage Museum mice hunters, attempts to predict the result of the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia during an event in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
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How we got here

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, Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane abruptly resigned.

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.

Who is Fernando Hierro? Where does Spain go now?

Where does Spain go now? Not even Rubiales knew when he met the media to make the announcement late Wednesday morning.

Soon thereafter, he and his staff appointed Hierro, a former Real Madrid defender with limited coaching experience. He spent a year at Real Madrid as an assistant. He spent a year in charge of second-tier Real Oviedo.

He has spent most of his post-playing career in sporting director-type roles, initially with the Spanish national team last decade, then with Malaga. He re-took his earlier role with the federation last fall. About nine months later, he’s now national team manager.

There’s no underestimating how much of a disruption this is. Spain had cruised through qualifying. In 20 games under the 51-year-old Lopetagui, 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.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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