Home before the postcards is one thing; home before the tournament even starts is another thing entirely — especially when you are the manager.
The 51-year-old coach and his entire staff were driven out of the team’s Krasnodar World Cup headquarters on Wednesday night and taken to the airport for their flight back to Madrid via Moscow.
Hair today, gone tomorrow: Julen Lopetegui sacked weeks after signing contract extension
‘I’m very upset but I just hope we can have a good World Cup,’ Lopetegui told reporters as he passed his regulation Spain luggage — complete with stitched-on name and national badge — through control.
‘We have a great team and I hope we can win the tournament,’ he added.
Just as the former Spain manager was leaving Russia, his replacement Fernando Hierro was being presented by the head of Spain’s Football Federation, Luis Rubiales.
Lopetegui’s decision to accept the Madrid job on Tuesday had been seen by Rubiales as a show of disrespect and he took revenge in less than 24 hours by sacking him.
Fernando Hierro was confirmed as new Spain coach just two days before World Cup opener
The Spanish Federation missed out on €2m (£1.76m) in compensation in the process because Real Madrid will now avoid paying Lopetegui’s release clause.
‘There are more important things than the money,’ said Rubiales, still fuming from the betrayal.
New man Hierro’s assistants, Julian Calero, Juan Carlos Martínez and former Spain international Carlos Marchena, will arrive on Thursday because Lopetegui’s technical team, made up of Pablo Sanz, Oscar Caro and Juan Carlos Alvarez, have also gone home.
The arrival of last-minute coaching back-up on Thursday will only add to the sense of chaos around the team just 24 hours before they face Portugal.
Lopetegui (c) was sacked on Wednesday by head of Spain Football Federation Luis Rubiales (L)
‘We feel we had no choice but to dismiss the coach,’ said Rubiales in a tense morning press conference.
‘We cannot ignore the fact that negotiations [between Lopetegui and Real Madrid] occurred without the Spanish Federation being informed. We were told five minutes before his decision to leave was made public.’
Rubiales was furious, in part, because he has only been in the job a month and his first act as President was to give Lopetegui a two-year contract extension last month.
The Spain players had been stunned on Tuesday afternoon when they found out Lopetegui was leaving after the World Cup.
Some of the Real Madrid players knew before their team-mates from other clubs and that only added to the soured atmosphere in the camp.
Despite the coach’s move to Madrid the majority of the players believed the best thing for the team was for him to stay until the end of the tournament.
Hierro took charge of his first training session and will bring in his own backroom staff
Sergio Ramos – who will now play for Lopetegui at Real Madrid – made a vociferous plea for him to see out the job.
But other players were less enthusiastic about defending him and would only say they would respect Rubiales’ decision whatever it was.
Without a united group urging him not to fire Lopetegui, the Spanish Federation chief informed the coach he was sacked.
A video doing the rounds on social media on Wednesday showed Lopetegui jokingly rollicking a reporter who had dared to ask a club-related question in a national team press conference recently. ‘This is the World Cup!’ Lopetegui said.
Ultimately he had been undone by breaking his own golden rule and not respecting the importance of Spain’s campaign in Russia.
He had put club before country, or at least that is the way Rubiales had read the situation – and he was not alone.
Spanish football president Rubiales thanked Hierro for stepping up to help the national team
FERNANDO HIERRO -CAREER FACTFILE
Teams played for:
Real Valladolid – 1987-89
Real Madrid – 1989-2003
Al Rayyan – 2003-04
Bolton – 2004-05
Real Madrid (assistant) – 2014-15
Oviedo – 2016-17
Spain – 88 caps (1989-2002)
Former Spain international Xavi backed the move to sack the coach saying: ‘Lopetegui’s decision was badly timed. It was a surprise for everyone but Rubiales has reacted in the right way.
‘He has looked out for the national team which ought to be above the interests of any one individual.’
New man Hierro has barely a day to prepare for Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. ‘They have left us all the videos,’ he said of the departing coaching staff.
‘It’s true that I only have one year’s experience as a first-team coach but I have 30 years experience of football,’ he added.
Hierro refused to answer a question about how he believed Real Madrid had behaved in the two-day farce. They are clearly unrepentant and hope to present Lopetegui as their new coach today, although he may yet decide against that.
Rubiales has only been in the role a month and felt betrayed by Lopetegui after Madrid deal
When it was suggested to Hierro that he could emulate Zinedine Zidane as someone parachuted in to cover a sacking who then wins trophies, he said: ‘I would sign for that now.’
It was a smiling end to a remarkable day of heated meetings, delayed press conferences and unheeded pleas from players.
When asked about the road map forward, Hierro said: ‘The key is to keep going on in the same way.’
Presumably he was referring to Spain’s 20-game unbeaten run that has led to these finals, not the fiasco of the past 24 hours.