As the dust settles on Spain’s shambolic World Cup exit, many individuals should accept their share of responsibility for the team’s failings. But perhaps the biggest slice of blame should be apportioned to a man who wasn’t even in Russia: Florentino Perez.
After all, the Real Madrid president was the one who plunged the national team into chaos by appointing Spain boss Julen Lopetegui as his club’s new coach just two days before the tournament started.
That bombshell resulted in the Spanish FA axing Lopetegui and appointing the grossly inexperienced Fernando Hierro in his place on a temporary basis. Although we will never know whether things would have transpired differently with Lopetegui still in place, there seemed to be a clear lack of leadership and direction as Spain stumbled through their last sixteen exit against Russia.
Perez was the man who made that happen. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to approach and negotiate with whoever he wants. But the manner in which it was conducted – behind the back of the Spanish FA – and then announced – with five minutes warning to Lopetegui’s then-employers – was unnecessarily provocative.
Why was Perez not open with the Spanish FA? Why did he not tell them that he wanted the coach, that the coach wanted to come, so they could agree an amicable plan of action?
We can only speculate, but the options are that either Perez couldn’t care less about the fate of his national team and was only looking after Real Madrid’s interests, or that – more sinisterly – he was actively attempting to undermine the Spanish FA in a political power struggle with that organisation’s newly appointed president Jose Luis Rubiales.
Is this unfair on Perez? After all, it takes two to tango and the Real Madrid president was only one of three main characters in the Lopetegui departure saga.
Another one those, of course, was Lopetegui himself, who can be criticised for allowing Madrid to announce his appointment at such an inopportune time. Why did he not insist to Perez that the news be kept under wraps until after the tournament, or at least properly discussed with his current employers first?
But he probably didn’t have much say in the matter. Real Madrid is an enormously powerful institution and Perez an extremely strong willed man. If you’re accepting a lucrative offer of employment from that club, it’s done on their terms or not terms at all. Lopetegui would hardly want to put himself in an awkward position with his new president before he had even started.
When you sack the coach Julen Lopetegui the day before the World Cup starts you take a huge gamble. You have to use a man who’s never managed a team before let alone at the highest level. Not sure the Spanish federation did the right thing there.#SpainOut
— Brighty (@Mark__Bright) July 1, 2018
And then there’s Rubiales, who has been accused of overreacting by firing Lopetegui rather than allowing him to remain in charge until the end of the tournament.
There’s a fair amount of sense in that argument, and to a great extent it can be said that Rubiales was cutting off his nose to spite his face by taking such a drastic step.
However, the Spanish FA chief clearly feels that he was given no choice considering the clandestine manner of the negotiations, and believes he was defending the integrity and credibility of his organisation – and by extension Spanish football as a whole – by immediately removing Lopetegui in the same way that any business executive would be promptly placed on ‘gardening leave’ in similar circumstances.
Of course, the mess of Lopetegui’s departure didn’t have to prove fatal and other factors were involved in Spain’s demise. A more experienced boss than Hierro, for starters, would have acted more decisively and exerted a greater sense of leadership when the team needed it against Russia.
And there were inexplicable individual mistakes from players, with David De Gea gifting a goal to Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos doing likewise against Morocco and then Gerard Pique conceding a needless and eventually crucial penalty against Russia.
But Hierro, although he didn’t do a great job, can’t really be criticised too much after being placed in an impossible position against his will with absolutely no period of notice, and the careless errors on the pitch can surely be traced back to the uncertainty generated by the sudden departure of the coach.
So although Rubiales and Lopetegui should be questioned, and Hierro and his players were also culpable, the main protagonist in the love triangle which destabilised the team on the eve of the tournament was Perez.
And when next season unfolds it will be interesting to see whether he and his club are subjected to increased levels of hostility on their travels around the country. Real Madrid might have succeeded in gaining a new manager, but they have also generated a lot of ill feeling.