Spain sack Lopetegui, hire Hierro on eve of World Cup


Krasnodar (Russia) (AFP) – Spain’s World Cup preparations were thrown into turmoil on Wednesday as Real Madrid-bound coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked, with Fernando Hierro taking charge just two days before their opening game in Russia.

In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, Madrid appointed Lopetegui as Zinedine Zidane’s successor to take over after the tournament in Russia, sparking outrage among the Spanish federation and fans at the timing of the announcement.

“We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” said Hierro, who was already working for the Spanish federation as sporting director. “The objective is to fight for a World Cup. The players have been working towards this for two years. 

“I’ve told the players that we have a wonderful, exciting challenge and we can’t let this be an excuse to distract us from our dream.”

Hierro appeared at a press conference alongside Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales, who had earlier delivered the news of his decision to fire Lopetegui despite reported resistance from the Spain players.

“Negotiating is legitimate but it took place without the RFEF being informed until five minutes before a press statement was released,” said Rubiales. “There has to be a message for all workers in the federation that there is a right way to do things.”

Lopetegui had signed a new contract until 2020 just last month.

“I am very sad, but we have a magnificent team and hopefully we’ll win the World Cup,” Lopetegui told reporters on his departure from Spain’s training base in Krasnodar.

Hours later, Hierro, 50, was named as an emergency replacement despite having only one season’s managerial experience in the Spanish Second Division with Real Oviedo. 

Spain are due to face European champions Portugal in Sochi on Friday before taking on Iran and Morocco in Group B.

– Players’ support –

There were fears Lopetegui’s appointment by the European champions could open up old divisions between the Real Madrid and Barcelona factions in the Spain squad.

For the first time since 2006, there are more players from Madrid in a Spanish squad for a major tournament, with a six-strong Real contingent and just Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets from Barca, as well as Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta, who ended his 16-year career at the Camp Nou last month.

“Lopetegui’s decision was inopportune, unexpected and rushed,” former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who won the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012 and Euro 2016 with Spain, told Marca at a pre-tournament event in Moscow.

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