The whole situation is still surreal. Julen Lopetegui was expected to be speaking to the press on Thursday ahead of Spain’s World Cup opener against Portugal in Sochi. Instead, however, he was presented to the media as the new Real Madrid coach.
Los Blancos had announced on Tuesday that Lopetegui would be the successor to Zinedine Zidane, who stepped down on May 31 after winning three successive Champions League crowns. The Basque boss was set to take over after the World Cup.
But that news did not sit well with Spain and in an emergency press conference arranged for Thursday morning, RFEF president Luis Rubiales announced that Lopetegui would be sacked with immediate effect.
That left Fernando Hierro in charge of La Roja for the World Cup, which Spain start against Portugal on Friday, and Lopetegui free to be unveiled by Madrid on Thursday in a press conference which started straight after the tournament’s opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Flanked by his wife and three children, former Real players including Raul and Alvaro Arbeloa, plus a string of VIPs and president Florentino Perez, Lopetegui was presented after a short speech from the club chief and a video from his time as a player and a coach.
“Lopetegui has been a great coach, but we can’t accept this behaviour,” Rubiales had said on Wednesday. “This has been done without our knowledge. The Federation cannot be left outside the negotiation of one of its employees and find out just five minutes before a public announcement.”
However, Perez refuted those words and although he admitted the negotiations had taken place over a number of hours, he said that he personally had contacted Rubiales to inform the RFEF president of the decision.
“This is an event we had hoped would take place after the World Cup and after another triumph for our national team,” he said, stating that the announcement ahead of the World Cup was made in order to avoid speculation and leaks.
And he added: “It was an absurd reaction [from Rubiales]. There is not one single argument that justifies Julen not being on the bench for the national team.” Perez also said he believed Madrid had been “transparent” throughout and claimed that some were trying to tarnish the club’s image.
Perez also reeled off a list of other international coaches – including Luiz Felipe Scolari, Luis Aragones, Louis van Gaal and Antonio Conte – who agreed deals to take over clubs sides after a major tournament. “But none of those clubs were Real Madrid,” he said.
For his part, Lopetegui claimed he had told Rubiales earlier. “He was the first to know,” he said. “Then there were congratulations. The players took it fantastically well.” After that, he went on to add, it had all been surreal.
“After the death of my mother,” he said, while breaking into tears, “it was the saddest day of life.” And after a long pause to regain his composure, he added: “But today is the happiest day of my life.”
Later came the stock question about whether Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s finest footballer, to which he replied: “He is a player I would always want by my side. The best in the world is at Real Madrid.” On several occasions, he had previously said Lionel Messi was the best ever, but he has to play a different tune now.
Lopetegui also wished Spain every success at the World Cup and said he hoped – and believed – that La Roja can go on to win the trophy. For him, that particular dream died on Wednesday. But a new one starts now and having started his career as a young goalkeeper at Real, he said: “I feel I’m back at home.”
And after the trauma of the past few days, that is probably just what he needs right now.