After their dismal Euro 2000 campaign, the German football federation (DFB) committed to changing the country’s football mentality. More full-time coaches were appointed, investment in academies increased significantly and formations and tactics gradually became more fluid. A generation of technical, versatile players was produced, culminating in eventual glory for the national team. Germany’s World Cup win in 2014 was a triumph of long-term planning.
In 2018, Spain will try the opposite strategy. Sacking your manager 48 hours before your first group game is the ultimate short-termist move. There has been no planning and no forethought. Suddenly, Spain’s tournament has been defined by a snap decision. They will always be the team that changed the venue, best man and vicar on the eve of the big day.
After Julen Lopetegui was appointed in 2016, he spoke to Sid Lowe of the Guardian. “You know what a national team coach’s job is, the environment, the culture,” Lopetegui said. “There are specific factors that condition your work and you understand them. You have a lot of time to prepare and very little time to have an impact.”
If Fernando Hierro is running painfully low on time to prepare, at least the impact cannot be doubted. The reverberations of Spain’s last two days will echo far longer than the World Cup itself. Hierro has been thrust uncomfortably into the breach, the sacrificial lamb of a governing body that has put its own reputation on the line.
If Brazil are hoping for salvation in 2018, exorcising the demons of the country’s second Maracanazo, Spain also have plenty of wrongs to right. They swaggered into Brazil as the reigning world and European champions and left humbled, beaten by Netherlands and Chile with their aura systematically broken.
Until Wednesday, Lopetegui had taken Spain far closer to the light than many assumed probable in his two years in charge. He has proven himself to be more tactically flexible than Vicente del Bosque, and his willingness to give opportunities to younger and more left-field options has increased Spain’s selection pool.
Qualification was serene, and Lopetegui remained undefeated during his 20-match tenure. Given that Lopetegui was hours away from taking the Wolves job before his appointment and was initially viewed as a make-do appointment, that represents significant progress. From fallen giants, Spain had become a popular tip to win their second World Cup in Russia. Now we’re talking in the past tense all over again.
The outgoing manager is not blameless. There is no crime in being appointed by one of the most prestigious clubs in world football, but if Lopetegui delayed in telling the Spanish Football Association (RFEF) until shortly before Real Madrid’s announcement, the anger of president Luis Rubiales is understandable.
“The federation cannot be left outside the negotiation of one of its employees, and find out just five minutes before a public announcement,” Rubiales said, and you can see his point, particularly having personally vouched for Lopetegui and pushed for the coach’s contract extension. If there’s one thing that men in power do not like, it’s being made to look foolish. La Roja mist quickly descended.
Yet this is an absurd move so close to the start of a World Cup. Does any reasonable person really believe that Lopetegui would have been distracted from winning the trophy? And if avoiding distractions was the RFEF’s priority, can they not see that sacking the coach creates the biggest disturbance of all?
“What we will do is touch as little as possible the national camp,” said Rubiales when announcing Hierro as the stand-in coach, while somehow still managing to keep a straight face. There is one thing you could have done differently to avoid upheaval, Luis.
This turmoil need not spell disaster. In 2006, at the last World Cup held in Europe, Italian football responded to the breaking of the Calciopoli scandal by winning the World Cup as a relative outsider. On July 4, prosecutor Stefano Palazzi insisted that Milan, Fiorentina, Juventus and Lazio should all be thrown out of Serie A. Five days later, an Italian team containing five players from those clubs won the World Cup final.
“In the summer of 2006 the famous Calciopoli scandal happened,” Marco Materazzi told the Guardian last week. “The entire public opinion, and all of the press wanted to see Fabio Cannavaro excluded. Nothing could get to us. We were always stronger than any obstacle. This type of spirit allows a team to get stronger.”
But if the farce surrounding Lopetegui’s sacking could promote a siege mentality forged upon unity, that seems a reach. Reports suggest that plenty of the players wanted the manager to stay in place and believed his forthcoming appointment would be little distraction. If you assume that everyone will bury the hatchet for the good of tournament success, you’re underestimating the bitterness of Spanish football politics.
For now, Spain are left holding out for Hierro, and he’s got to be sure and it’s got to be soon. After the collapse in Brazil, Spain had finally re-calibrated and set themselves on the right path again. Now the entire radar is on the blink. Progress in the midst of chaos is the most difficult task of all.