The decision to remove Julen Lopetegui 48 hours before the action started in Russia proved catastrophic after replacement Fernando Hierro flopped
Koke and Iago Aspas may have missed the penalties that sealed Spain’s early elimination from the 2018 World Cup , but the man most responsible for this disaster is not in Fernando Hierro’s squad, but rather at the head of the panicked RFEF that condemned the campaign to failure.
Despite being tipped as one of the favourites prior to the World Cup, Spain never looked comfortable. Their exit eventually came after 120 turgid minutes of football, in which – despite breaking all sorts of possession and passing records – La Roja barely troubled Russia’s hero Igor Akinfeev between the posts. It was the worst game of the tournament for 2010’s winners at the worst possible time, and they now pack their bags even though they failed to lose a single game inside 90 minutes.
The real roots of failure, though, were laid long before Spain learned of their last 16 showdown with this year’s hosts. RFEF president Luis Rubiales began the rot with the decision to fire coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before the World Cup began for holding talks with Real Madrid to become the new Blancos coach.
“We have been forced to take this decision because the Spain team is every Spanish person’s team. Having the best is important, but even more important is how things are done;” the official explained to reporters to justify his actions.
The Federation’s president slammed Lopetegui’s manner of conducting his business and came out swinging for Spain. But ironically all he did was mirror Lopetegui’s irresponsible actions by ripping the team apart 48 hours before kick-off. If sacking the coach that took the Roja to Russia – unbeaten through qualifying and showing glimpses of brilliant football – is thinking about the national team, it boggles the mind. Rubiales was guided by his ego, not his nation.
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It is of course undeniable that Madrid and Lopetegui did not pick the right time to make such an announcement, but equally true is the fact that the ex-coach was the best prepared man to take the reins of one of the World Cup favourites prior to this circus.
The situation was extremely delicate, and required cool heads and no little leadership. Rubiales, however, was only capable of adding more chaos to an already combustible mix.
Fernando Hierro was the Spain hero drafted in to cover the mess left by Lopetegui’s departure, but the ex-Madrid defender was unable to make his team click. With just hours to bring his team together, a miracle was needed. Of four games Spain won just once, against Iran, with a thrilling 3-3 draw against Portugal the only memorable moment the country will leave on this World Cup.
If the bare numbers make for grim reading, the sensations left by this team are even worse. Hierro’s stint has not been a success: he has been unable to use the many options he has on the bench, he has not made the changes necessary when things have not worked, and too many players have been left to toil on with little left in the tank.
The nadir came against Russia, who were flailing after a fortuitous own goal put Spain ahead: with an opponent on the ropes, Hierro refused to move in for the kill and let the hosts recover and fight back into the game.
“Lopetegui was the right decision, I have no regrets. I do not care about comments made with hindsight,” Rubiales fired after elimination. One would think that given this exit the RFEF would act with a little more force and do the right thing, finally, for his national team – unless his ego gets in the way again.