What next for Spain af­ter shock?

The Phnom Penh Post - - SPORT -

THE bru­tal sack­ing of Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup leaves Fernando Hierro scram­bling to keep Spain on track af­ter a dis­ori­ent­ing 24 hours for one of the pre-tour­na­ment favourites.

Spain face Eu­ro­pean cham­pi­ons Por­tu­gal in Sochi on Friday in a clash that caught the eye even be­fore a se­ries of as­ton­ish­ing events un­folded.

Lopetegui was sur­pris­ingly named Real Madrid man­ager on Tuesday and was meant to take charge at the San­ti­ago Bern­abeu af­ter the tour­na­ment. But less than a day later he finds him­self turfed out of the Spain camp.

The fir­ing of the for­mer Madrid and Barcelona goal­keeper is just the lat­est re­minder of the fine bal­ance any man­ager of La Roja must strike in the om­nipresent ri­valry be­tween the coun­try’s two big­gest clubs.

For the first time in a ma­jor tour­na­ment since 2006, Real’s six-strong con­tin­gent out­num­ber Barca play­ers in the Spain squad with only Ger­ard Pique, Jordi Alba and Ser­gio Bus­quets se­lected, along with An­dres Ini­esta, who only last month brought his glo­ri­ous 16-year ca­reer at the Camp Nou to an end.

With at least six of the ex­pected start­ing XI for the Por­tu­gal game to come from Madrid and Barca, Hierro, him­self a for­mer Real cap­tain, must en­sure club loy­al­ties do not fur­ther un­der­mine Spain’s chances, with divi­sions al­ready ap­pear­ing be­tween the play­ers and the fed­er­a­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Span­ish press re­ports, the play­ers’ wish for Lopetegui to stay, in­clud­ing from Pique and Bus­quets, could not change fed­er­a­tion chief Luis Ru­biales’ mind, so fu­ri­ous was he that Lopetegui had not in­formed his em­ploy­ers of ne­go­ti­a­tions with Madrid un­til min­utes be­fore the ap­point­ment was made pub­lic.

Ex­pe­ri­enced fig­ures missed

Lopetegui did not lose a sin­gle game in 20 matches as Spain boss but even in a flaw­less qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign on the field, the Madrid-Barca ri­valry and Spain’s tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion over­shad­owed their per­for­mances.

Pique, to re­tire from in­ter­na­tional foot­ball af­ter the World Cup, has been jeered rou­tinely by Spain fans for the past two years for his jibes at Real and for de­fend­ing Cat­alo­nia’s right to have a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence from Spain.

The ri­valry was of­ten cited as a rea­son for Spain’s tag as peren­nial un­der­achiev­ers at ma­jor tour­na­ments un­til a golden run of three con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries be­tween 2008 and 2012.

For­mer Madrid goal­keeper Iker Casil­las and Barca cap­tains Car­les Puyol and Xavi Her­nan­dez played a big part in bind­ing those squads to­gether and their lead­er­ship in the na­tional team has been missed.

De­spite his paucity of man­age­rial ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing spent just one sea­son in charge of sec­ond di­vi­sion Oviedo, Hierro could help unify a dis­tressed camp.

He was pop­u­lar among the play­ers as the fed­er­a­tion’s sport­ing di­rec­tor be­tween 2007 and 2011, and re­turned to that role in Novem­ber last year.

Games against Iran and Morocco to come in Group B should also give Spain time to re­cover, even if Por­tu­gal do in­flict a bad start. Spain bounced back to win the World Cup in 2010 af­ter los­ing their open­ing game to Switzer­land.

Hierro will also be able to call on one of the most ta­lented squads on show in Rus­sia, with a healthy mix of ex­pe­ri­ence and youth.

Cap­tain Ser­gio Ramos, Pique, Ini­esta and Bus­quets all have ex­pe­ri­ence of win­ning ma­jor tour­na­ments, while the likes of Koke, Isco and Marco Asen­sio brought more en­ergy as Lopetegui added fresh blood to Spain in the qual­i­fiers.

He will not be able to com­plete what he started in Rus­sia but his good work may not go to waste if Hierro can get Spain quickly back on track.

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP

The new coach of the Span­ish na­tional foot­ball team, Fernando Hierro (cen­tre), at­tends a train­ing ses­sion at Krasnodar Acad­emy on Wednesday.

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