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June 14, 2018

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New boss Hierro left to clean up mess of Spain’s own making

At midday on Tuesday, Spain’s biggest worry heading into its crucial World Cup opener with Portugal tomorrow was who would make its talented team.

Yet, less than 24 hours later, coach Julen Lopetegui has been sacked by the Spanish Football Federation, or RFEF, and Fernando Hierro, the former Real Madrid player, has been appointed to replace him and clean up the mess he has inherited.

While not a first foray into management for Hierro, the RFEF’s sports director, it is nevertheless a daunting task that awaits.

Media reports suggest the majority of the squad were fiercely opposed to RFEF president Luis Rubiales’s decision to dismiss Lopetegui for agreeing to become Real’s new manager after the World Cup without permission.

In particular, the core of Under-21 players he helped bring through to the senior side, including David de Gea, Dani Carvajal, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Koke, were said to be amongst the most vocal for keeping the coach in place.

Other players were said to be uneasy at the thought of being managed by Real’s new coach.

Hierro’s first task will be to unite the group. It is times like these when countries sink or swim. Spain’s Euro 2008 winning coach Luis Aragones signed a deal to take over at Fenerbahce on the eve of that tournament’s semifinal and that did the national side no harm.

A peer of Lopetegui’s, Hierro was a goalscoring midfielder and defender who made 601 appearances for Real, captaining club as well as country.

He had spells in Qatar and England before retiring and has held a number of roles, including sports director at Malaga and the Spanish FA as well as serving as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Real in his final season.

Already part of the backroom staff, he is understood to have a good relationship with the squad, and as an 89-cap veteran of the national team nobody can suggest he does not know how tournament football works.

Will merely his aura and experience be enough to inspire a squad whom many consider to be the best group of players at the tournament?

His only previous experience as a head coach was leading second division Oviedo to an eighth-placed finish in 2016-17, missing out on the playoffs.

From the Segunda to Sochi, it is not the most well-trodden of paths but one 50-year-old Hierro has had to take in order to try to get Spain back on track.

Earlier, Rubiales said firing Lopetegui wasn’t the best solution but it was needed after the RFEF was caught by surprise by Real’s announcement.

“The federation cannot be left out of a negotiation by one of its workers and be informed five minutes before the press release,” Rubiales said. “We have been compelled to act.”

Rubiales, who took over as president last month, said Lopetegui betrayed the federation’s values and it was the only decision he could make.

After Real’s announcement that it hired Lopetegui, critics immediately began questioning some of the coach’s decisions with the national team, including his choice to leave some Barcelona players such as Sergi Roberto out of the World Cup squad. There were also questions about how Lopetegui would be able to fully focus on the national team while also having to discuss offseason signings for his new club.

There are six Real players in Spain’s World Cup squad.

Lopetegui’s name had not been mentioned by media among the probable candidates for the Real job, which opened up after Zinedine Zidane unexpectedly quit. Last month, Lopetegui agreed to extend his contract with the national team through 2020.

The 51-year-old took over from Vicente del Bosque after the 2016 European Championship. He was credited with reviving a team that was on the decline after winning Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.

By successfully blending talented youngsters and veterans from its golden generation, Lopetegui kept Spain unbeaten through 20 matches in charge, comfortably leading the team to the World Cup from a qualifying group that included Italy.


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