Spain fires coach on eve of World Cup for taking Real Madrid job

Spain's former coach Julen LopeteguiLast-minute turmoil threatens to derail Spain’s 2018 World Cup hopes after coach Julen Lopetegui was fired on the eve of the tournament. Lopetegui sealed his fate when he agreed to become manager of Real Madrid following the conclusion of the World Cup, leading to the decision to fire him. While Spain is considered one of the stronger squads heading to Russia for this year’s tournament, the 2010 champions are eager to erase the bitter taste of their group stage exit in 2014, which could be a challenge after the sudden change in leadership.

Lopetegui’s mistake was not involving the Spanish soccer federation in his negotiations with Real Madrid, or even alerting them to the possibility of him taking the position until it was about to be announced on Tuesday. Had Lopetegui or Real Madrid informed the federation during negotiations, it would not have felt obliged to let him go at such an inconvenient moment. He will be replaced by Fernando Hierro, who was the national team’s sporting director, but the team that opens its tournament against Portugal on Friday will still bear Lopetegui’s fingerprints.

Lopetegui, who signed a contract extension with the Spanish national team last year that ran through 2022, was not originally among the names rumoured to be in the running for the Real Madrid vacancy created by Zinedine Zidane’s surprising departure. He took over as Spain’s coach in 2016 and helped them go undefeated in World Cup qualifying, which is likely what made him a desirable commodity in the eyes of a powerhouse club like Real Madrid hungry for a fourth straight Champions League title.

Spain is in Group B with Portugal, Morocco, and Iran, and advancing to the elimination round is a must, regardless of managerial turmoil. Lopetegui wished the team well upon his exit, and while he was popular among the Spanish players, they appear to be rallying around their shared goal and a sense of national pride. Sergio Ramos reaffirmed his commitment to the national team in a patriotic tweet, while Gerard Pique tweeted inspiration from college basketball in the form of the 1989 NCAA champion Michigan Wolverines, who replaced their coach under similar circumstances after he took another job prior to that tournament. Spain remains the third-favourite team to win the 2018 World Cup, trailing only Brazil and Germany in terms of betting odds, so a deep tournament run is still possible. However, another early exit will raise all the wrong questions.