International friendlies can sometimes be difficult games to understand fully. The managers tend to play out experimental sides and players themselves are almost never at full-tilt, wary of all muscle twitches they might carry back to their clubs.
So when Spain hosted Argentina at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid on 27 March this year, there wasn’t much at stake for either team. Both coaches would’ve already earmarked around 20 of the 23 men to board the summer flight to Russia. By the end of the match, there were a lot of people looking around in disbelief, trying to find someone who could lend a shoulder to their shock. 6-1 scores, even in international friendlies, never fly unnoticed.
Back in Spain, Barcelona were all but sure of winning the league, well into the final stages of Copa Del Rey, and a week away from their quarter-final tie against AS Roma in the Champions League. You could forgive Real Madrid and Florentino Perez for a few proverbial creases on the forehead. The thought of walking on the grass at the NSC Stadium at Kiev come 26 May, draped in white confetti, wouldn’t ever have crossed their minds.
That’s partly what Zinedine Zidane does to you. Even after you had seemingly seen the lot, he could deliver things that would leave gaping mouths and dropped jaws in its wake. A hat-trick of Champions League titles? No way.
They say the greatest players don’t always make the most successful coaches, and it’s always a risk appointing one, because their reputation hinges more on what they could do with a football, rather than the chalkboard. Would you try telling that to a man who hit a panenka and a headbutt in the same World Cup final?
Hence, it must come as no surprise that Zidane called it quits when least expected. Managerial stability is almost a merry-go-round at Real Madrid, and Zizou would’ve never let another person decide his fate. And suddenly, Madrid were managerless. With a host of big names available, and some more names in the market expected to be added post the World Cup, they wouldn’t have been too worried. There is always someone ready to steer the ship for Los Merengues.
Julen Lopetegui doesn’t really strike you as a man who would enter a press-conference to rapturous applause or eerie silence. Quiet and unassuming, he has silently turned Spain back into the force they were pre-Brazil 2014. Since taking over in 2016, his record for Spain has been spotless; undefeated in 20 games, more than 3 goals per game, and a style of play that has brought together the aesthetic and the effective with great balance.
Like him, there are many coaches, Spanish and otherwise, who have done stellar jobs with their respective teams. But none of them have beaten Argentina 6-1. Argentina, a team who run on an engine known as Lionel Messi, the face of FC Barcelona in the 21st century. Florentino Perez must’ve taken more than just a sneaky look. The tightrope between Barcelona and Real Madrid goes back decades, and the Madrid president isn’t done tugging at it yet.
Yet, the timing of Madrid’s announcement of him as the manager starting the upcoming season beats most boundaries of rationale. Spain are three days away from their World Cup opener, against European champions Portugal no less.
For ages, Spain have been perceived as a sophisticated football culture, one that understands its ecosystem much better than a lot of other countries. During sensitive moments, the national team embraces insularity, and nothing going on in the media and press can permeate to the camp.
This announcement has now introduced multiple levels of confusion for the players and staff at Russia. As likeable a man has Lopetegui is, it is impossible for information of this nature to pass through the players’ minds without raising a few quiet questions about his motivation levels, knowing that his future lies elsewhere after the next thirty days.
Lopetegui, for probably no fault of his, now has to gather his players around and spend time clearing up the air. For a young team, fighting to reclaim their pride after meek defences of World Cup and Euro titles in 2014 and 2016, this comes as a thoroughly unnecessary distraction.
Spain might still do well at Russia, maybe even land the title, but Spanish Football Federation and Real Madrid would be wiser for understanding the poignancy of a situation before letting their excitement spill over to the media next time.
Updated Date: Jun 13, 2018 13:37 PM