Spanish Federation president Luis Rubiales appears to have nuked Spain’s chances at the 2018 World Cup just 24 hours before the opening of the big dance.
Rubiales pulled the power play of all power plays by sacking manager Julen Lopetegui for going behind the federation’s back to negotiate a deal to become Real Madrid’s new boss following the conclusion of the World Cup. After the deal leaked and Los Blancos confirmed the appointment, Rubiales heard the players and Director of Football Fernando Hierro all plead for support of Lopetegui, and then canned him anyways and put the woefully underqualified Hierro in charge.
So how much does this truly affect Spain’s ability to perform at a high level on the biggest soccer stage?
A backroom overhaul at the eve of the World Cup is nothing to scoff at. There can be no greater upheaval to a squad’s preparation than to have its leader undercut on the doorstep. However, the Spanish squad is full of tactically adept veterans such as Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, and many more. It’s unlikely that their tactical makeup will change much – if at all – and with so little time to make any form of sweeping tactical changes, there will likely be close to no major shuffles to the deck.
There was plenty of talk about how Lopetegui was less a tactical puppeteer and more of a mental facilitator during his time in charge of Spain. In fact, in his only club position prior to taking the national team job, he failed in monumental fashion at Porto, unable to finish out his second season with the team in third in the Primera Liga and booted following a massive 6-1 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich. Understanding Lopetegui’s shaky managerial past is critical in deducing that his success with the national team could be as much or more down to his ability to balance his squad’s egos and mental states than a tactical prowess. Thus, the squad may be able to continue on the field without Lopetegui’s guidance and minimize the damage suffered by his sudden departure.
Despite Lopetegui’s success after minimal club experience, looking past Hierro’s monumentally thin managerial resume is still very challenging. He has almost no experience leading a squad, and while he has spent the last year or so as Director of Football under Lopetegui, that’s not nearly enough to instill massive confidence in his ability to lead the national team tactically and emotionally. His only job saw Real Oviedo miss out on the Segunda B divison promotion playoffs on the final match of the season in 2017, leaving the club after just the one season.
So will Lopetegui’s sudden upheaval throw the Spain squad into irreperable chaos, or will Hierro be able to right the ship? Will the squad leadership be enough to see it through the maelstrom, or will the ship be swallowed beneath the stormy waters? It’s unlikely the managerial change will have any major impact on their Group B finish, but with a potential quarterfinal matchup against Argentina looming on the horizon, Spain could be headed for a second disappointing finish in a major tournament in the last two years, a result that fans are unlikely to take in stride.