Julen Lopetegui Is Fired, and There’s Plenty of Blame to Share

Julen Lopetegui Is Fired, and There’s Plenty of Blame to Share

In time, perhaps, there will be a little sympathy for Julen Lopetegui, the man who lost the two biggest jobs in Spanish soccer in the space of 139 days. On reflection, even those who still feel disappointed or betrayed may recognize the poignancy in the tale of a coach who spent 15 years trying to fulfill his dream, only for it to fall apart in less than five months.

For now, though, that remains a distant prospect. On Monday night, Real Madrid issued a brisk, terse statement confirming Lopetegui’s long-anticipated dismissal after the team’s 5-1 humiliation by Barcelona in the first Clásico of the season on Sunday.

Lopetegui, 52, had been in charge for just 14 games. He had won six and lost six. Real, the reigning European champion, sits ninth in La Liga. The club’s board said it thought it had to act now, “while the objectives for the season can still be attained.”

Outside of his immediate family — his father, José Antonio Lopetegui, had complained in an interview that he had been “robbed of 50 goals” when the club sold Cristiano Ronaldo just a few weeks after Lopetegui arrived – the news produced little sorrow.

Lopetegui has become a parable on the perils of ambition, a case study of the dangers of hubris.

To many, after all, he was the man who sacrificed Spain’s World Cup campaign on the altar of his own ambition. Just three days before Spain’s first game in Russia this summer, Real Madrid announced that Lopetegui — Spain’s manager at the time — had agreed to become the club’s coach after the tournament.

Lopetegui had not lost any of his 20 games in charge of Spain’s senior team, which was among the favorites to win the World Cup. The announcement, though, infuriated Luis Rubiales, the head of the Spanish soccer federation; he thought Lopetegui and Madrid had humiliated the national team.

Over the course of a long night at Spain’s base in Krasnodar after the news broke, Rubiales determined that he had no choice but to fire Lopetegui. Fernando Hierro, the technical director, stepped in as coach at the last moment. The squad was divided on whether it was the right decision. Once the tournament began, Spain sputtered and struggled, and was eliminated in the round of 16 by Russia.

Lopetegui was not the only one to attract public scorn. Florentino Pérez, Real’s president, was widely condemned for putting partisan matters ahead of national interests. He was accused of derailing the national team in order to flex Madrid’s muscles, to project his own power.

In reality, however, Pérez was not proving his strength so much as demonstrating his weakness. He had been caught unaware earlier in the summer when Zinedine Zidane decided to resign as manager, and he had already been turned down by a number of coaches — Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham, Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp — in his search for a replacement.

When he settled on Lopetegui, a week or so before the World Cup, he petitioned the coach to allow him to publicly announce it. Lopetegui wanted to wait until after the tournament, but Pérez was adamant. His logic was telling — and, in hindsight, a clear red flag: He worried that a poor tournament for Spain would diminish the size of Real’s coup. He did not rush to announce Lopetegui’s arrival because he was so proud of the appointment; he did so because he worried that Lopetegui would fail.

Lopetegui had similar concerns. Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese superagent, had been encouraging Lopetegui to believe he could be the next Real Madrid manager for at least a year. Mendes had planted the seed in Pérez’s mind in the first place. Lopetegui — whose elite club experience amounted to one unhappy, 20-month spell at F.C. Porto — suspected he was not ready for a job of that scale.

He was proved right, of course; so, too, were Pérez’s concerns. And the consequences will be expensive: Reports in Spain suggest Madrid will have to pay the remainder of Lopetegui’s contract, at a cost of around 15 million euros, about $17 million. Santiago Solari has been promoted from the club’s youth team to replace him temporarily; a more permanent successor, possibly the former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, will cost many millions more.

But in Lopetegui’s mind, he had no choice. It is here, perhaps, that history will be a little kinder to him, in time. True, he may not have been right to accept the Madrid job at all on the eve of a World Cup. And he was almost certainly wrong to allow it to be made public without consulting Rubiales and his employers at the Spanish federation.

But he cannot be blamed for taking the job, for accepting the invitation to fulfill his dream. Nor does all of the blame for his failure lie with him.

Over the previous three years, Real Madrid had been uncharacteristically calm, its swirling political intrigue and near-continual backstage infighting doused by Zidane’s preternatural cool. Since his departure, though, Madrid has reverted to type. Almost immediately after Pérez appointed Lopetegui — a technocrat, training-ground coach — he decided he needed a more authoritarian hand to discipline a squad he thought had grown fat on the fruits of success. He has considered offering José Mourinho a return to Madrid; Conte is cut from the same, military-grade cloth.

The players do not feel the same. Sergio Ramos, the captain, observed that “sometimes knowing how to manage a dressing room is more important than technical ability,” clearly indicating that he thought that the delicate touch was the more effective one.

Ramos supported Lopetegui almost to the end — he was, in the words of the Spanish newspaper El País, the “last bastion of Castle Lopetegui” — something that should have been a source of solace to the manager. And yet Pérez believes too much power has coalesced around Ramos, just as it had around Iker Casillas and Raúl in previous years. Pérez does not tolerate any rival factions within his fiefdom. A disciplinarian manager, in Pérez’s eyes, could bring Ramos back into line and perhaps even consent to selling the defender. Ramos’s support may not have stayed the knife, then; it may, instead, have guaranteed the blow.

That was not the only problem. Some of Lopetegui’s tactical decisions had alienated senior players; one or two, such as his treatment of his two goalkeepers, Thibaut Courtois and Keylor Navas, had baffled the board.

Pérez wanted Vinicius Junior, the Brazilian teenager who arrived this summer, to feature more prominently; Lopetegui felt he was too raw. Lopetegui felt let down by the club’s failure to replace Ronaldo, or to add the reinforcements in midfield and defense he had requested. The board, in its statement, pointed out that he had “eight nominees for the Ballon D’Or” at his disposal already.

“There is a great difference between the quality of the squad,” its statement read, “and the results achieved already.”

That is not in doubt. What is in question is to what extent blame can be laid exclusively with the manager himself. Lopetegui knew he would be the one to pay the price. “We know how football works,” he said after the Clásico. Lopetegui seemed to know, then, what lay in store.

The day after he was sacked by Spain — the day he was appointed at Real — he said losing the national team job had been “the saddest day” of his life, other than the death of his mother. He knew, after defeat in Barcelona, that more sorrow was coming.

For now, few will share his sadness. He has paid the price for his ambition, his hubris. He risked everything, and lost, twice: he cost Spain a World Cup for 139 days and a humiliation. In time, though, that perception may change. He will never be the hero of the story, of course, but perhaps he will not always be the only villain.

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